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Others Look To Md. County's Model To Treat Opiate Addictions


The spread of opiate addiction in this country is a huge national trend made up of thousands of individual stories, many of them tragic.


Heroin use has doubled in young adults over the past decade. Overdose deaths have quadrupled, which is why it's worth listening to the way that a few of those individual stories became a little less tragic.

INSKEEP: The story takes us to Washington County in rural Maryland. There, many addicts fight drugs using another drug. Here's Christopher Connelly of member station WYPR.

BOBBI LEE: (Laughter).

CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: These days, Heather Wetzel and her daughter spend a lot of time together. Four-year-old Bobbi Lee loves to swing.

BOBBI: Mommy, I'm going a little bit higher than you.

HEATHER WETZEL: You are. You're going crooked.

CONNELLY: The two are practically joined at the hip. But just a few months ago, they were very much apart because Wetzel was in jail.

WETZEL: I missed a lot with my daughter. I was in jail for 11 and a half months. So for a 4-year-old, that's a lifetime.

CONNELLY: Wetzel's story is fairly typical. Addiction runs in her family. She partied from a young age. A boyfriend introduced her to heroin. And a few years later, she said, she'd lost everything and ended up in jail. That's where she found God and got access to what she calls her magic cape that helps her keep sober. It's a monthly shot of Vivitrol.

WETZEL: And I didn't even know what the hell Vivitrol was, you know, until I went to jail. So I'm glad. Like, I feel like the judge gave me a second chance at life.

CONNELLY: Unlike other drugs used to help addicts that have to be taken every day, Vivitrol is taken every month. It's a long-acting version of an old drug called naltrexone, which binds to opioid receptors in the brain and blocks the euphoria of the drugs and some of the cravings. Rebecca Hogamier is the head of behavioral health services at the Washington County Health Department. She launched the Vivitrol program here just as opiate abuse began to skyrocket.

REBECCA HOGAMIER: I did not see this coming, and it just came out of nowhere.

CONNELLY: The program is straightforward. Start people on Vivitrol after the detox in jail, and couple it with behavioral and group therapy. When they get out, help them keep up their treatment and monthly shots.

HOGAMIER: We're waiting for that individual to walk through the door. And if they're not walking through the door, we're on the phone calling them and saying, what's going on?

CONNELLY: It's that combination of Vivitrol with therapy, 12 step programs and social services that's the recipe for recovery, according to Timothy Fong. He's the director of the addiction medicine clinic at UCLA. He says Vivitrol is no silver bullet.

TIMOTHY FONG: Addiction treatment requires a village. It requires a whole host of things other than just medications. And so you can't just give somebody a shot and never see them back.

CONNELLY: And he says Vivitrol doesn't work for everybody. People should be off of heroin for at least a week before getting the shot, which can be a tall order for addicts. Then there's the price tag, which is several times that of other treatment drugs, like methadone. But overall, Fong says, it's worth it.

FONG: It reduces overdose. It reduces crime rates. It encourages people to stay in treatment. And the longer people stay in treatment, the better outcomes they're going to get.

CONNELLY: The state of Maryland is replicating the Washington County program in other counties. Across the country, jails, prisons and drug courts are increasingly using Vivitrol to help addicts like Troy Garver avoid relapse. For more than a year, Garver has been out of jail and off of drugs. Every month, he goes to the Washington County Health Department to get his Vivitrol shot.

TROY GARVER: I'm not in trouble. I'm not doing drugs, so that's a good thing. I doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I go to work every day. I mean, I think I'm - I think I'm doing great.

CONNELLY: Now he can spend time with his kids, who remember the seven years their dad was driven by his addiction to pain pills. That, he says, makes the struggle worth it. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Connelly in Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Connelly is a reporter with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.