Longform

Meth Treatment

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The only problem?

It isn't true. Statistics overwhelmingly point to a more complex reality: Meth addiction is hard to treat, but can, in fact, be treated as successfully as drugs like cocaine and pot.

Which means that 5 percent figure is pure bunk.

"When asked about the source of numbers, speakers are uncertain about their origin," Richard Rawson, associate director of the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, writes in a recent report on the topic. "In fact, no such data exist."

Rawson questions the motives of politicians who insist crystal meth can't be treated.

"The resulting conclusion is that spending money on treating methamphetamine users is futile and wasteful."

As treatment advocates point out, what Health and Human Services data actually show is that more than 12 million people have used crystal meth at least once. Only 5 percent of those 12 million -- fewer than 500,000 -- have used it in the last month.

How is that possible?

The others didn't get hooked after one snort. Or they managed to quit.

That's a better percentage than people who tried cigarettes, notes Reena Szczepanski, executive director of New Mexico's Drug Policy Alliance, which pushes for legalizing marijuana but not harder drugs like cocaine and meth. The group is committed to fighting all drug abuse through treatment rather than prosecution.

"It's not helpful to say meth is so powerful you can't treat it," she says. "We've been through this with cocaine, with crack. It's something we say with every drug that comes along and is suddenly popular.

"But we've talked to treatment providers. And overwhelmingly, they say, you can treat this."

For example: The Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation surveyed 362 drug addicts who were treated in 2003. Six months after discharge, 65 percent of meth users were still clean.

That was higher than pot smokers (only 53 percent managed to stop completely) and alcoholics (43 percent).

That doesn't mean that it's easy to kick meth addiction -- or that there's even overwhelming research in support of the programs considered most successful.

Scientific studies of alcohol rehabilitation models are relatively common; studies that look solely at meth users are not. Some studies do measure how many meth addicts complete treatment, or how many pass drug tests at the end of the treatment period.

Few follow up with their subjects even a full year later.

There are some things that people in the treatment community, however, mostly agree on.

One is that meth addiction is, in fact, more difficult to treat than alcohol addiction.

Another is that it's more expensive.

And the third is that no one -- from insurance companies to taxpayers -- wants to foot the bill.


Like cocaine, crystal meth is not physically addictive. Someone who's coming off a bender will have to sleep, sometimes for days on end. But they won't be experiencing a heroin-style detox.

It should make things easier -- but in some ways, it doesn't.

Treatment workers say serious meth abusers alter their brain chemistry so much that they can feel "foggy" for as long as two years, even after quitting.

"You're not going to recover from meth overnight or even in a year," says Ken Lucas, a spokesman for Valley Hope Arizona, which runs four inpatient facilities in the Phoenix area. "You're rewiring the brain, much more so than with heroin or alcohol or cocaine."

Treatment providers believe inpatient therapy is key.

"It really takes a dramatic change in lifestyle," Lucas says.

"If you're addicted, outpatient therapy is like throwing money from a moving car," agrees Jeffrey Taylor, a counselor and program advocate for the Phoenix Rescue Mission.

But few insurance providers will fund lengthy inpatient treatment.

Many require addicts try outpatient first, to prove they're serious by attending meetings. Even if they manage to do that, and get into treatment, few insurance plans cover more than a one-month stay.

It's just not enough.

"A 28-day program is not going to do any good with a crystal meth addict doing 10 big lines a night," Taylor says. "You've got to have six months or even a year."

Taylor's program, the Phoenix Rescue Mission, is one of the rare inpatient programs for indigents -- and it's willing to house them for years at a time.

But Taylor's only got 20 beds.

Programs like Valley Hope Arizona, meanwhile, cost $10,000 a month. So when insurance runs out, many addicts have no choice but to leave, vowing to make it with outpatient therapy sessions.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske