“When one door closes, another door opens,” Alexander Graham Bell once famously said and, when it comes to the problem of drug addiction in Niagara Falls, his words ring true today.
When the elderly Dr. Pravin Mehta was arrested at his Pine Avenue office by a combined task force of balaclava clad federal state and local police in January 2011, it was said that the oxycodone, Xanax and other prescription opiates he dispensed like candy constituted the city’s biggest drug problem.
Mehta, one of the first doctors charged in the recent rash of prescription pill cases, pleaded guilty in federal court on May 13 to handing out illegal pain medication from late 2007 to early 2011 when he was arrested.
Now 77, he will face nearly six years in prison when he is sentenced in the coming months by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
Mehta, who police claim was known as “Dr. Feel Good” on the streets, also admitted signing blank prescription forms and directing a staff member, in his absence, to fill out the rest of the forms.
He was originally charged in a 28-count federal indictment in 2011 but ended up pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and other controlled substances.
“Mehta created a culture of drug abuse that the City of Niagara Falls has never seen before,” Niagara Falls Police Sup. Bryan DalPorto said.
Since Mehta’s operation was shut down, a new drug scourge has hit the streets here. The problem of heroin addiction has become so acute, officials say, that not one but two methadone treatment centers are now needed here, where none existed previously.
Horizon Health Services, one of the region’s leading providers of drug detox, behavioral health and vocational services has acquired a former eye care facility in Niagara Falls that it plans to renovate and reopen as its newest location.
Horizon paid $360,000 for the 5,800-square-foot building at 2400 Pine Ave., along with two adjacent lots, totaling just under one acre. The property had been owned by Claus and Gerry Fichte, who leased it to Fichte Endl & Elmer Eyecare.
For Horizon, the vacated space provided an opportunity to grow, said Anne Constantino, CEO. “The former Fichte location is perfect for us as it has access from public transportation, lots of parking and room for building expansion,” she said.
And over on 6th Street and Walnut Avenue, the Northpointe Council is hoping to make the old school district administration building the home for it’s methadone maintenance program.
Northpointe's President and CEO Daniel Shubsda.
"The new location would provide treatment to individuals and families affected by chemical dependency," an October letter from Northpointe's President and CEO Daniel Shubsda stated. "Services would include outpatient counseling services and methadone treatment for addictions."
City Council Chairman Andrew Touma said he was unaware of Northpointe's interest in the site until last week. There is an "obvious need" for the clinic in the city, Touma said.
"I certainly hope the public would have a part in this," he said. "That's all I ask for, some input and some opportunity for the residents to have input too."
As for subsequent approvals for Northpointe's outpatient services, Senior City Planner Tom DeSantis said the property is zoned commercially, permitting the construction of a methadone clinic, and therefore cannot be legally blocked if it is the intention of a developer.
"This is something that we ruled on two months ago," DeSantis said. "The use is allowable in that district, so it doesn’t require planning board approval."
Northpointe, a registered charity organization in the state, lists Craig Johnson, corporation counsel for the city, and Charles Walker, a sitting councilman, as members of its governing board.
The rapidly expanding human services sector in Niagara Falls is fast becoming the city’s growth industry. The location of two methadone treatment centers in the city will undoubtedly aid many poor unfortunates locked in the grip of heroin addiction to the population here, and provide living wage jobs – as the politicians would say – for those involved in their treatment.