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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Addiction help short of need

Jamie Tobias Neely

Amanda Colin didn’t hesitate when Spokane County threatened to cut its methadone treatment program last summer.

She and a group of other patients met with county commissioners to tell them just how desperately they need the steadying routines of that program, with its affirming counselors, its regular urine tests and its daily doses of that cranberry-pink liquid. For Colin, a 29-year-old mother, the Spokane Regional Health District’s methadone program improves every aspect of life.

After Colin and her group shared their personal stories, the county found a way to continue to pay for the treatment of nearly two dozen people who were about to be cut from the program.

Program manager Julie Albright can’t predict how her $1.85 million budget will fare for the next fiscal year. She already turns away too many of the people who need her program most.

Once primarily designed for indigent heroin addicts easing off illegal drugs, this program now serves many private-pay patients who are hooked on prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. In 2000, 80 percent of the patients were addicted to heroin. In 2009, it was less than 45 percent.

The clinic can serve a maximum of 400 patients, and there are still open slots for people whose jobs and health insurance can cover the $400 monthly cost. But there’s only money to cover 162 people on public assistance. Albright doesn’t keep much of a waiting list anymore – she just tells the poor they’ll have to wait at least a year.

Addicts are often desperate to get into the program. But the consequences for pregnant women are especially tragic.

Albright recently received a phone call from a new mother in tears. The young woman had been trying to get into the methadone program for six months. Two weeks ago she delivered while addicted to drugs, the baby went into withdrawal and Child Protective Services took her newborn away. “It’s very sad,” Albright said.

Last Monday morning, several young parents gathered with their babies around a conference table at health district office. They shared stories of their lives before methadone.

Colin became addicted to Vicodin after she fell on a customer’s steps five years ago while delivering pizza. At first she got prescriptions from a hospital emergency room, and then she turned to a dealer. Eventually she was spending around $3,000 a month on the pills.

Other women, who did not want their full names reported, described heroin addiction, homelessness and prostitution.

With the help of this treatment, they say, they’re able to be effective mothers, build healthy families and plan constructive futures. Colin hopes to pursue a college degree in graphic design.

According to Albright, methadone can make a significant change in a patient’s life. It doesn’t make the person high, but the carefully monitored doses ward off withdrawal symptoms such as muscle cramps, agitation and nausea.

The doors of the methadone clinic open at 5:30 a.m. six days a week. Store managers, nurses and CEOs of companies, Albright says, arrive early to take their dose before they head off to work.

She describes the stigma of a methadone user as “the junkie who comes out from under the bridge.” The reality, though, includes a range of socioeconomic levels, from the poor to the professional, and ages from 18 to 74. “It could be your neighbor who was out mowing his lawn and hurt his back and got addicted to prescription drugs from his doctor,” Albright said.

As Washington state struggles to fight the sixth highest rate of prescription drug abuse in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, private-pay patients will likely continue to stream in.

Unless something changes, new public assistance patients will be routinely turned away.

When Albright hears of yet another pharmacy robbery, she knows that behind it lies a potential patient.

Spokane doesn’t need any more armed robbers at its prescription drug counters. Neither does it need any more dope-sick young mothers estranged from their babies.

Until the world’s poppy fields, the nation’s pharmaceutical companies, and the region’s doctors stop the flow of these drugs into our city, we taxpayers have little choice. We’ve got to help.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, serves as an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. She may be reached at
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