S.F. tailors drugs, therapies to users' distinct cravings
The United States is in the middle of a new wave of methamphetamine abuse, but programs to treat speed addicts are behind the times, say Bay Area researchers who are studying new therapies - and new drugs - that they hope will help people kick the habit.
"If someone needs treatment now, they might as well go to any place for any kind of addiction, because there's no specific treatment for methamphetamine. And the programs we have don't work that well," said Dr. John Mendelson, a senior scientist with the Addiction and Pharmacology Research Laboratory at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.
Methamphetamine abusers are typically treated in regular groups or one-on-one counseling sessions over several months, followed by a 12-step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. It's a form of treatment that's been used with addicts of all types of drugs.
The method has been proved to work, but not as effectively as some researchers would like. Now, addiction experts believe that the key to helping meth users is to acknowledge that it's a unique drug with barriers unlike other addictive drugs that keep people from quitting.
To test that belief, scientists at treatment centers throughout the Bay Area have begun to look at new styles of counseling and at pharmaceutical drugs that would help fight the distinct cravings that meth addicts experience.
"We're learning that methamphetamine is not heroin, prescription opiates or alcohol," Mendelson said. "It's a different problem with a different set of treatments that are going to be, hopefully, effective."
Cal Pacific a leader in fight
California Pacific Medical Center's Addiction and Pharmacology Research Laboratory is gaining popularity among recovering addicts because of new drug and counseling techniques being tested there.
"Everyone on the street knows about this place," said Myrna, a 47-year-old San Francisco resident and former methamphetamine addict who participated in a clinical trial at the clinic.
Myrna, who asked that her last name not be used for this story, bounced around treatment programs for months before landing at California Pacific. There, she received experimental drugs that she thinks helped her kick her addiction. She also attended thrice-weekly counseling sessions at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics.
Addiction experts and researchers said her story isn't unusual. Finding a drug to help addicts get past the initial withdrawal gives them "a foot up in their sobriety," said Dr. Raymond Buscemi, a psychiatrist with the Addiction and Pharmacology Research Laboratory at California Pacific.
Methamphetamine first became popular in the United States with long-haul truckers in the 1950s, and later was picked up in the 1970s and '80s by athletes looking for a synthetic performance boost. Its next wave - as a party drug popular among gays - started about 20 years ago. It's now spread beyond that and is one of the few drugs that has high rates of use among women.
Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant that can be taken by pill, inhaled through the nose, injected or smoked. It triggers the brain to release high levels of dopamine, which creates an intense feeling of euphoria. But over time, the body becomes resistant to dopamine, and the person needs more of the drug to get the same high.
Because it's a stimulant, methamphetamine also keeps users awake and often makes them more physically active - many people take it because it makes them feel more productive. Long-term abuse, however, can cause insomnia, severe mood swings, violent behavior and even psychosis.
Meth addicts don't usually have the same acute withdrawal symptoms that someone suffering from heroin or alcohol addiction might face. But meth addicts may be more psychologically attached, researchers say. When they try to quit, they can fall into a severe depression and find that using again is the only way to feel better.
Myrna started using regularly when she was 32 and going through a bad divorce. A friend introduced her to methamphetamine, and before long she was injecting it regularly. Myrna had custody of her three children while she was using, and she worked steadily for five years.
"I kept doing it on a daily basis because I was able to function," she said.
She finally decided to seek treatment when her daughter confessed to experimenting with drugs. At the same time, Myrna talked to two friends and former addicts who were on their way to recovery, and she thought if they could quit, so could she. That began a journey that led to volunteering for the California Pacific trial.
Methamphetamine is especially popular with people who have
psychological disorders like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction experts say they often treat women who are victims of domestic abuse. These problems must be addressed if an addict is going to quit the drug, they say.
July 06, 2010|By Erin Allday, Chronicle Staff Writer