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Storm Chaos Cuts Help for Addicts

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Chicago Tribune


CHICAGO - At the Baton Rouge Treatment Center, people suffering a unique, hurricane-related misery have poured in by the hundreds, waiting as long as two hours each day for relief.

The center is one of the few places remaining in Louisiana where they can get methadone, a medication given to those addicted to heroin or other opiate drugs. Without it, they face a harrowing withdrawal certain to compound their already considerable despair.

The suffering of drug addicts might not garner much public sympathy in the face of the overwhelming agony stirred by Hurricane Katrina, but some say it's a plight that should not be ignored.

"They're people. Don't we care about the people?" said Kathleen Kane-Willis, a Roosevelt University researcher who has pushed for greater aid for displaced heroin addicts. "Why should we make a judgment that the people who use drugs aren't deserving of care?"

Among the estimated 1 million people left homeless by Katrina are thousands of drug abusers and alcoholics, some who have never been in treatment but many who have been torn away from their recovery programs.

Doctors, counselors and treatment centers across the country are trying to fill the void left by the disaster, bringing in supplies, volunteering their services, even offering free residential care to refugees.

"We are admitting a 19-year-old girl who was in a treatment center in New Orleans and was displaced," said John Schwarzlose of the Betty Ford Center in California, where a 30-day stay normally costs $20,000. "She went from there to a shelter. I don't know if she's been drinking and using. We'll find out when she gets here."

Even before the hurricane, Louisiana suffered a dearth of treatment options for drug and alcohol abusers. As many as 1,800 clogged waiting lists on any given day, said Samantha-Hope Atkins of Hope Networks, a recovery advocacy group in Baton Rouge.

"Very few people realized that Louisiana had 32 medical detox beds for 4 million residents," she said. "Twenty are in (New Orleans') Charity Hospital, which is gone."

Katrina wiped out other recovery options as well. The New Orleans area hosted dozens of 12-step meetings every day, and the city's methadone clinics served about 1,300 patients.

Some were able to find help after evacuating. The Baton Rouge Treatment Center picked up an extra 200 methadone patients, but infusions of staffers from other clinics has allowed the center to persevere despite long lines that promise only to get longer.

"We know they're just gonna keep coming," said clinic director Carl Kelley.

A spokesman for Alcoholics Anonymous in Houston said the group has offered meetings in the Astrodome and George R. Brown Convention Center, and federal officials said the same is happening in shelters across the country.

Some addicts appear to be treating their addictions in other ways. A Reuters reporter in New Orleans last week found several opiate addicts - including one methadone patient - buying or bartering for looted morphine, prescription painkillers or sleeping pills outside a Bourbon Street bar.

Charles Curie, head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said the federal government has released $600,000 to help pay for treatment for displaced people. More money will be available as Congress passes additional disaster relief funds, he said.

Curie said the hurricane could harm more than those who lost their treatment programs. History shows that trauma causes drug and alcohol problems for other people - including police, medics and other first responders - to increase.

"We can anticipate ... spikes in abuse after an event like this," he said.

While treatment counselors in the Gulf States are trying to accommodate the surge in new clients, recovery specialists from across the country have vowed to help out.

Hope Networks' Atkins said some of the nation's largest treatment centers have offered to provide free transportation and accommodations, while smaller groups have donated Big Books - the bible of AA.

Dr. Sarz Maxwell, medical director for the Chicago Recovery Alliance, is hoping to provide relief in person. She said a drug manufacturer has released $50,000 worth of Suboxone, a methadone-like medication for heroin addicts, and she is trying to get federal permission to distribute the drug to those not yet in treatment programs.

If she gets it, she plans to drive the alliance's van - complete with a safe to protect the drugs - to Louisiana in a few days and search for addicts on the street.

"Only about one in eight heroin addicts are in methadone treatment," she said. "What about those seven in eight who now have their cop spots completely wiped out, who are chasing around everywhere trying to get off their sick? Those are the ones I'd really like to reach."


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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