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­Massachusetts lawmakers to draft a ‘sober homes’ bill

A leader of the Legislature’s substance abuse committee said Thursday that she and her colleagues will draft a bill to try to weed out the growing numbers of private group homes for recovering addicts that are triggering neighborhood complaints about drug overdoses and reckless partying.

“We want to drive business to the positive places,” Representative Elizabeth Malia, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain and cochairwoman of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said after a State House hearing on so-called sober homes, low-budget rental units that are expanding in many places in the state.

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Public health and law enforce­ment officials testified that there are many well-run sober homes, where addicts help each other stay clean, but that they have also received ­numerous complaints about chaotically run homes where landlords simply want rent — often about $150 a week for a shared room — and turn a blind eye as tenants get high.

The 2½ -hour hearing was held after release of a Department of Public Health report in May that said the state is virtually powerless to impose rules or regulations on sober homes.

The report concluded that federal disability and housing laws classify substance abusers as a protected class of disabled citizens, and, as such, any group housing to accommodate them cannot be subject to any added regulation that does not apply to other typical residents.

State officials acknowledged that they have no idea how many sober homes exist in ­Massachusetts because almost anyone with property to rent can advertise it as such.

That report went on to recommend an indirect form of regulation: All sober-home ­operators would be invited to undergo state-approved training on how to run a model ­sober home, and only those who underwent such voluntary training would receive housing referrals from the courts and probation and parole agencies. A large part of the business of these sober homes are defendants and inmates with addiction problems who are leaving the state system and need a place to live.

Hilary Jacobs, who heads substance abuse services in the state Department of Public Health, said her agency has about $250,000 to conduct such training for the first year, based on a rough estimate of 300 sober homes in the state.

Mark E. Lawton, a former juvenile court judge who is now in private practice in Brockton, testified that his son, who struggled with addiction, was helped by living briefly in a sober home.

He suggested that state lawmakers could tap the knowledge of operators with deep experience in the field, including those affiliated with the nonprofit ­organization, the Massachusetts Association of Sober Housing.

The association is a small group of about 20 sober-home operators dedicated to restoring the reputation of this type of housing.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.
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