As Heroin Overdoses Double, Some Addicts Turn to Acupuncture

From the Portland Mercury, October 8 2008

In a room two stories above the North Park Blocks, Jeremy’s ears are full of carefully placed needles. His body seems a bit tense as he recounts the last time he used heroin, 49 days ago. “I just realized that [getting high] didn’t feel as good as the experiences I’ve had being clean and sober,” he says. “Synthetic happiness is just not as good as spiritual happiness.”

Around Jeremy, a half-dozen other addicts recline in deeply cushioned chairs, the air filled with tinkling Asian music. In all of their ears are five thin pins. All of them are using acupuncture in an attempt to keep clean.

For 20 years, acupuncture has been an integral part of Portland’s approach to treating drug and alcohol addiction. But recently, the need for heroin treatment has jumped, while funding has been slashed.

In June and July alone, 117 people overdosed on heroin in downtown Portland—double the number of overdoses for the same time period last year, says Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese. Behind the alarming increase is a change in the kind of heroin available in Portland. The cops’ drug and vice unit says Portland’s heroin is the purest bought and sold on any city’s streets in the US, funneled to Oregon by Mexican drug cartels. The purer the heroin, the stronger its effects and the stronger its grip on addicts.

According to a Multnomah County study, one proven way to keep addicts in therapy and get them through the harrowing first few days of withdrawal without relapsing is using acupuncture in therapy. But right now, the need for treatment in Portland is overwhelming programs.

For Central City Concern Executive Director Ed Blackburn, the increase in demand for treatment is obvious. Ten years ago, when he worked at Hooper Detoxification Center on NE MLK—the first place addicts land when trying to get clean—the clinic occasionally had to turn away 10 people a day. Now, they often turn away up to 50 people. There are 54 beds at Hooper and Blackburn estimates funding only covers 38. As for the rest, “We fill ’em, we just lose money sometimes,” he says. “We have the same capacity we had in 1984.”

In the room where Jeremy receives acupuncture five times a week as part of a months-long rehab program run by Central City Concern, three acupuncturists treat 50 to 60 recovering addicts a day. The staff was twice that size until 2004, when the Oregon Health Plan made major budget cuts. And “all bets are off” as to the program’s future funding, says Blackburn, citing the current economic picture.

Yet acupuncture is a proven treatment method. The 1999 Multnomah County study found that addicts receiving acupuncture in therapy were 20 percent more likely to get through the first few days of withdrawal, and twice as likely to continue long-term rehab.

“It’s subtle. It takes the edge off,” says Jeremy, with a thin needle stuck right between his eyes. “It makes me feel more at peace in my own skin, and I’ve had tremendous problems with that.”

Other options for quitting heroin involve taking methadone, a chemical anesthetic. “If someone’s doing methadone daily, it’s different than what we’re doing. We’re trying to get them off all drugs,” says Chuck Sve, one of Jeremy’s acupuncturists. “They come in and they’re feeling nauseous, they’re irritable, they’re not well. We put the needles in and they’re chill. It calms them down without any use of force or anything.” Once patients are calm and their bodies no longer pained and twitching, they’re much more able to participate in counseling sessions.

Acupuncturist David Eisen, who directs addiction treatment center Quest Center for Integrative Health, points out that the acupuncture helps with long-term withdrawal symptoms that lead to relapse, like depression and insomnia. “When I can’t sleep, there’s certain sleep points that really help,” says one of his clients, Stephen, referring to acupuncture pressure points. “It still takes me three hours to fall asleep, but I don’t need to run out and get shots of whiskey to help.”

This week, Stephen celebrated his ninth month of sobriety. “It was definitely either this or jumping off a bridge,” he says.