Even the most successful substance abuse programs claim success rates of only 30% to 40%. As a result, some Los Angeles residents suffering from addictions are trying a new tack: They're fighting needles with needles.
Both hard-drug addictions and nicotine and caffeine addiction are being treated with the ancient Chinese healing art of acupuncture at the Turnaround Alternative Treatment Center on Skid Row. The nonprofit drop-in center was started by volunteers from the Los Angeles sheriff's and police departments, downtown social agencies and the medical and business communities.
Effort to Lower Crime
The cooperative effort, say organizers, has a single focus: to reduce urban crime by reducing drug abuse.
"We estimate that 90% of all crimes are committed by drug-addicted people," Los Angeles County Supervisor Edmund Edelman said at the center's official opening. "If this program works, we could duplicate it throughout the county." Also attending the recent opening were representatives of Mayor Tom Bradley, the LAPD and the sheriff's department.
Capt. Diane Harber (ret.), former head of the LAPD's West Valley Patrol Division and a driving force behind Turnaround, said she was frustrated by the revolving-door process of arresting drug users and seeing them sent back out on the streets. "And I hadn't seen a treatment program in existence that had had a great deal of success with hard-core addicts."
After hearing about a New York City center that claimed to have good results treating hard-core addicts with acupuncture, Harber went to see how it worked.
"We were using methadone to treat heroin addicts when we read reports of a doctor in Hong Kong using acupuncture for addiction," said Dr. Michael Smith, a psychiatrist who began the New York program 13 years ago at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the South Bronx. "So we decided to try it here."
"Acupuncture alone is not sufficient," Smith reported. "It (ending addiction) depends on a combination of treatments. But in the first months it works far better than any other mode of outpatient treatment that exists.
"If people are to stay clean for years," Smith said, "they need to look at their life styles on an ongoing basis."
Clinics in Boston, Washington, Albuquerque, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Portland, two Indian reservations, England and Hungary have modeled their programs on the South Bronx center.
Long-Term Recovery Rates
Asked about the value of acupuncture in treating addiction, some physicians expressed reservations. For example, Dr. P. Joseph Frawley, chief of staff at Schick Shadel Hospital in Santa Barbara, which uses a combination of medical and behavioral approaches to treat addiction, said, "I've seen reports of acupuncture helping withdrawal, but I haven't seen reports of any long-term recovery rates."
And Dr. Basil Clyman, associate chief of staff for ambulatory care at the Veterans Administration Hospital at Wilshire and Sawtelle boulevards and former head of a joint detoxification service for Los Angeles County and the University of Southern California said, "It's important not to lose sight of potential medical complications that can come with drug addiction and withdrawal.
"If the stress of withdrawal is added to medical problems like ulcers, trauma or infection, it can exacerbate the problem and make patients more ill," Clyman said. "Those who use alternative techniques tend to get over-focused on their own treatment modalities and overlook other problems. Acupuncture can do no harm, provided it's done with medical observation."
Los Angeles physician David Katzin, a member of Turnaround's medical advisory board, said early results of the program are "extremely encouraging and indicate acupuncture is an effective, non-toxic alternative to the use of methadone and other pharmacologic approaches to de-toxification."
Bruce Monroe, a long-range planner with the sheriff's department, was recruited to launch Turnaround and serves as director and chairman of the steering committee. A small grant was obtained from the California Community Foundation as were thousands of dollars in goods and services from local businesses. Monroe also was instrumental in leasing the San Pedro Street site from the city free of charge.
Monroe and the planning committee designed a three-tiered program: acupuncture, support groups, economic alternatives.
Turnaround's pilot program has been under way at the SAMRA University of Oriental Medicine in the Westlake District for three months. The satellite clinic has been open to treat addicts free of charge from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Saturday; the center on San Pedro will charge on a sliding scale. The Turnaround hot line is (213) 623-HELP.
During its first two weeks, Turnaround personnel treated about 150 patients. Seventy percent returned for repeat treatments, according to Monroe.