ANNAPOLIS – Greg, a recovering substance abuser, shifted nervously in his tweed sports jacket and freshly-shined weejuns before he began to address the legislators.
After 20 years of drug and alcohol bingeing, he had tried counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous to stay clean, Greg told the attentive lawmakers. But he always ended up relapsing.
Then — six months ago — he started acupuncture treatments. His cravings and dreams about drugs disappeared.
“I don’t really know how to describe it, but there’s something physiological and psychological about it,” he said. “It’s like a miracle.”
Acupuncture — an ancient medical therapy developed more than 3,000 years ago in China — could help heal addicts in Maryland’s inner cities and prisons, saving the state millions of dollars in social services costs, practitioners say.
Psychologist Peter Marinakis told the Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse this week that he became interested in acupuncture as a treatment method after more than two decades of working with substance abusers in correctional facilities.
Noting the high rates of relapse and the relationship to crime, he became disenchanted with both the costs and results of conventional treatment.
“The majority of our clients have been in from three to 15 substance abuse programs paid for by the State of Maryland,” Marinakis said.
He offered the example of New York City, where treating crack-addicted mothers with acupuncture has already saved local government $1.6 million per 100 births, just because the babies are born with fewer health problems.
Marinakis said acupuncture is also effective with “poly drug abusers,” those who may be addicted to a variety of substances — including alcohol, heroin, crack, methamphetamine, methadone and nicotine.
Acupuncture works by stimulating designated points on the body through the insertion of very fine needles, with each point corresponding to the functions of specific organs and body processes.
The acupuncture part of detoxification treatment consists of inserting five sterilized, disposable needles into specific points in the outer portion of each ear.
Daily treatments last 45 minutes in the first few weeks of treatment. The number of sessions are usually decreased over several months, but treatments can be added or increased as cravings, stress or relapse occurs, Marinakis said.
In August 1993, Marinakis, a faculty member at the Traditional Acupuncture Institute in Columbia, Md., set up a drug detoxification pilot program for 12 women at the Women’s Detention Center in Baltimore. The program was conducted in cooperation with Johns Hopkins University.
Since the program began, 612 women have chosen to participate, said LaMont W. Flanagan, the center’s correctional services commissioner. A full 93 percent completed the program.
It is too soon to judge long-term success, Flanagan said. But he said the acupuncture option has been “overwhelmed with requests” from the center’s 400 female inmates.
Correctional staff members report that participants say they feel healthier and calmer, and are more cooperative overall with both inmates and officials.
Substance abuse detoxification programs using acupuncture have been used in Florida, the District of Columbia, New York, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Texas. In New York City alone, Lincoln Hospital is treating between 250 to 350 people a day, Marinakis said.
With a corporate grant of $155,000, the Traditional Acupuncture Institute also operates an acupuncture facility from the Penn North Neighborhood Center in Baltimore.
The program charges fees on a sliding scale. In addition to the substance abuser, the therapy — involving acupuncture, life skills training and community involvement — extends to family members and friends.
In his final comments, Marinakis emphasized that acupuncture is not a miracle cure for drug or alcohol addiction.
“One of my greatest fears is that acupuncture will be seen as a panacea,” Marinakis said.
While it doesn’t cure addiction, acupuncture does reduce withdrawal symptoms. This in turn allows involvement in counseling, 12-step programs, healthy personal relationships and other supports needed to maintain sobriety and long-term recovery, he added.
“The research is clear. If you stay in a treatment program, your odds are greatly improved,” Marinakis said.
At a time when substance abuse treatment programs in general are threatened by decreasing federal and state budgets, legislators should consider ways to fund innovative, cost- effective methods that work, he said.
Marinakis said the eventual result is that communities prosper, people get jobs, families become stronger, and the ultimate costs to society are reduced. -30-