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Sept. 30, 2023

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NorthStar ready to be new tool in opioid fight in Clark County

Columbia River Mental Health Services’ facility awaits public hearing for conditional use permit

By , Columbian staff reporter
6 Photos
Columbia River Mental Health Services facility manager Michael Graves shows off the lobby of the new NorthStar substance use treatment facility.
Columbia River Mental Health Services facility manager Michael Graves shows off the lobby of the new NorthStar substance use treatment facility. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Michael Graves peels open a large, black safe, revealing something resembling a milk jug.

“This is the stuff that helps,” Graves, a facility manager for Columbia River Mental Health Services, said, rotating the white and purple container in his hands.

The unremarkable jug contains methadone, a lifesaving drug that has curbed opioid dependency since the 1950s.

Opioid use is rising across Washington, and tagging along is overdose deaths. Hoping to provide a local solution, Columbia River Mental Health Services will soon open a new opioid treatment facility about a half-mile from Columbia River’s main campus.

The NorthStar facility at 7105 N.E. 40th St. will increase treatment opportunities to meet the swelling demand for opioid services in Clark County. But the new location has received mixed opinions from neighbors, prompting a public hearing on June 6.

The facility was once an Elmer’s restaurant. But when walking through the front doors, visitors would have a hard time imagining the former pancake house. The waiting room is decorated in pearl-toned sofas and chairs and an electric fireplace for extra comfort; ring-shaped lights hang from the ceiling.

“Unfortunately, there can be stereotypes and stigma for facilities like this. So, when people come in here they aren’t expecting to see all this,” said Graves, gesturing to the waiting room. “We are trying to provide an environment of care and something that preserves the dignity of people.”

Once clients check in at a kiosk or front desk, they wait to be called. They would then be guided to a room for counseling and peer support or what is referred to as a dosing station. The assembly line resembles a bank teller station with a private cubicle where a client can be administered methadone.

The facility in the Van Mall neighborhood will offer Food and Drug Administration-approved medications including methadone, naloxone, Suboxone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. Clients can also access case management, get treatment for hepatitis C, receive Narcan and referrals to other inpatient treatments.

“Medication is just one piece of the puzzle here,” said Graves. “It’s there to prevent accidents from happening.”

The original NorthStar is Clark County’s largest outpatient treatment provider for opiate dependency. According to Columbia River Mental Health Services’ data, 1 out of every 850 Clark County residents receives treatment for addiction in their clinic. The area of NorthStar was chosen because it has been a concentrated region for overdose deaths in the city and county recently. It is also accessible to many main transit lines.

The facility is open to all community members over 18 — from a person experiencing homelessness to a business owner to a parent.

“Addiction really does not discriminate,” said Graves.

The crisis and the solution

Fentanyl and methamphetamine have driven local overdose deaths up 75 percent in Clark County since 2019, according to Columbia River Mental Health Services’ data.

Meanwhile, an opioid and drug overdose dashboard launched in April by the Washington State Department of Health showed that the county’s overdose deaths counting all drugs rose by 101.7 percent, from 58 to 117 deaths between 2016 and 2021.

Methadone and similar treatments are among the most effective methods for relieving addiction, according to multiple studies. With those treatments, overdoses are reduced by up to 60 percent. Employment and housing outcomes also improve.

A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study found that people treated for opioid addictions with methadone significantly decreased their use of fentanyl during a year of treatment.

Public hearing scheduled

The facility has received some pushback from nearby neighbors, said Graves. Some concerns were that NorthStar would attract crime in the area.

“The data shows otherwise. With treatment comes accountability. We are attempting to change some of the behaviors that get into an addictive personality,” said Graves. “Are we going to have problems? Yes. But are we going to deal with them effectively? Yes.”

A public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 6 to consider Columbia River Mental Health Services’ application for a conditional use permit. After the public hearing, the city of Vancouver’s hearings examiner has up to 14 days to either approve or deny the permit application.

Whatever the decision, there are also appeal provisions in the code.

The hearing will be virtual, and community members are welcome to join. If interested, visit https://www.cityofvancouver.us/citycouncil/page/city-council-meetings. The building is ready to go as soon as the approval process is complete.

“The fact is the project cannot be torpedoed so long as it has been constructed in accordance with building codes and zoning laws. Our intended use is permitted, but the permit may come with conditions, hence the application for a conditional use permit. The code provides an appeal process which could potentially delay opening, but I am very confident the project will be formally approved,” Graves said.

“But the public, including our neighbors, does have a right to be heard. At the end of the day we are committed to being good neighbors willing to work collaboratively with our neighbors to ensure everyone, most especially those we serve, have very positive outcomes.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.