Columns 2009

Forced detox a good start but no solution

Here’s the good news and bad news. The good news is that getting someone off the street and physically separating them from their drug of choice is going to save their life by simply removing their chosen method of death. The bad news is that forced detoxification and treatment programs are not a cure and, for many, the return to their drug of choice will occur before they clear the block the detox center is on.

Addiction is a multifaceted monster that is never totally conquered. The best outcome for any addict is to defeat the monster enough to regain the upper hand over it. This, as any addict will tell you, is a lifelong battle that begins anew every day when they wake up and have to consciously choose to not give in to the craving.

The fact that Anchorage is now about to institute a program of involuntary detox for people in the worse shape on the streets is a signal of how desperate we’ve become to deal with this problem.  Whether you have any sympathy or not for the people found dead in the homeless camps that dot our community, it’s simply not very good for our reputation as a town with any level of compassion to let it continue to occur.

Too bad we didn’t see this coming some twenty years back when, as the economy took a downturn, we started cutting programs that were considered unnecessary. Detox and treatments programs don’t have much of a voice because the people they serve are hardly a powerful constituency that a politician needs to fear angering. Prison treatment programs were axed, funding for non-profits programs in the bush and urban areas were closed and the population they served was left on its own to party till they died. Judges who used to require treatment as part of a sentence were faced with the reality that, at a time when they had complete control over a person’s life, they could not get them into treatment because programs no longer existed.

I’ve worked with people who are addicted to substances for over thirty years now and there are a few facts that can’t be disputed. One is that forcing someone into a treatment program does not produce highly successful results if, by results, you are looking for people to get and remain sober for a prolonged period of time.  I work with parents who are usually being told by the state they have to get sober to get their kids back. They will often get sober just long enough to have that happen. Then all bets are off.

But forcing people into detox has the beneficial effect of getting the poison out of their system if only for a short period of time. And during that short period of clarity, you have a chance at helping them turn their lives around. That alone makes it worth the effort – that and the fact that for so long as they are in a program detoxing, they aren’t out on the street drinking and dying.

The real test will come when people start sobering up in detox and deciding they do want to stay sober and make better choices in life. At that point, it will be critical that we have the ability to get these people into long-term treatment so they can continue healing. If we don’t, if we send them back out on the street to wait their turn in line for a treatment bed, the risk of losing them back to their addiction is astronomically high.

Both the state and city need to understand that if they once again take up the cause of sobriety in an effort to save lives and make our city more livable, they need to be willing to put a lot of money into that effort and they need to be prepared for a population that will often fail multiple times before succeeding. They need to keep the money dedicated to detox and treatment programs even when they see the same faces coming back around for the fourth or fifth treatment.

When treating addiction there are no guarantees, except the guarantee that without intervention we will continue to find dead people in the tents and woods of our town.