A rehab president tells The Fix that Rx pain meds and Mexican cartels are to blame.
The number of patients being admitted for opiate addiction to Assisted Recovery Centers of America (ARCA) has surged 20% so far this year, according to Percy Menzies, president of the St. Louis drug and alcohol treatment center. “After 12 years of treating more than 5,000 people addicted to drugs and alcohol, I have never seen this much opiate usage, particularly heroin,” he tells The Fix.
Why the rise? Menzies blames two factors: one, the huge increase in the use and abuse of prescription pain meds in the US—which are the perfect segue to heroin, he believes—and two, the targeting of a previously untapped market by drug cartels. “We thought heroin addiction was long gone,” he says. “But Mexican drug dealers very shrewdly saw an opportunity to start selling it in the suburban community, to which the DEA was completely oblivious. They saw a huge market opportunity to sell to kids who are now getting easy access to pain medications. Now it is a lot more expensive to buy an OxyContin on the street than it is to buy heroin. It perfectly filled the need.” Fortunately, in Menzies’ opinion, heroin addiction is actually the easiest addiction to treat—for the simple reason that a number of drugs, including the non-addicting opioid blocker naltrexone (aka Vivitrol), have been approved to combat it. Naltrexone works by blocking opiate receptors in the brain, preventing the user from getting high.
ARCA treats heroin addicts by starting them on anywhere from two days to a month of suboxone, before slowly tapering them off that drug and switching to naltrexone. “Long-term recovery and success is based on how quickly you can make the switch,” says Menzies. He’s a big fan of naltrexone: he worked as a rep for it in 1984, when it was first approved by the FDA to treat opioid addiction—at which time it was “relentlessly maligned and slandered by the methadone lobby.” And that is not the way forward, he argues: “The future of drug-addiction treatment is how well we use non-addicting medication. Why did anti-depressant medication become so mainstream? Because the drugs used to treat depression are non-addicting.”