By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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The room's only source of illumination is the wavering morning sunlight filtering though the fence, past the basketball court and into a bank of windows along one wall. Already, the dulcet sounds of new-age flute music float from a portable tape player, a backdrop to the soft shuffling of feet as a group of men and women seat themselves and await acupuncturist Trish Householder. Soon, long needles will sprout from their ears. And then the room will fall still.
In this place, quiet is usually hard to come by. So, too, are sharp objects. The room is in the Denver County Jail. And the clients are drug-plagued inmates, volunteers in a pilot program designed to help free them from addiction.
"I don't know if it'll work," says inmate Vern Newsom, a 39-year-old acupuncture first-timer who claims to have been using intravenous drugs for the past twenty years. "But you gotta have faith. If not, you'll give up. You have to hang on to something."
Acupuncture as a tool to detoxify drug addicts is not new--it's been in use since the 1970s. Nor is it particularly new to Denver--the Mile High Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse established Project Recovery, an outpatient acupuncture program, two years ago. But it wasn't until last fall that Project Recovery got the go-ahead and the funds to start a jail-based program. It remains the only program of its kind in the state.
Project Recovery owes its existence to the tireless persistence of Flavia Henderson, executive director of the Mile High Council. A tiny woman with big hair and boundless enthusiasm, Henderson had long been searching for a drug and alcohol program that would be suitable for treating Denver's indigent population. She also hoped to find a solution for treating pregnant addicts.
She discovered the answer about five years ago after a visit to Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, where the staff has been treating drug addicts with acupuncture since 1974. Practitioners believe that placing needles in five key points in the ear--points corresponding with the kidneys, liver, lungs, the nervous system and shen men (or spiritual center)--will speed up detoxification, calm the person's nerves and stimulate production of endorphins, opiates manufactured in the brain.
Acupuncture is not an end in itself, Henderson emphasizes. "It begins to help the people feel better," she says, "and it opens channels and clears their mind so that when they get into treatment, the counseling has more impact and they are able to break through their denial.
"The average heroin user goes sixteen years before entering treatment. They've been medicating themselves for so long, numbing out for so many years, that when the drugs are out of their system, everything comes crashing down."
Henderson realized that acupuncture's "voodoo element" might throw some people off, and in fact, it took her three years of discussion and searching for funding sources to get the program going. Project Recovery's outpatient program finally opened its doors in lower downtown in November 1992 with the help of volunteer acupuncturists and a $750 donation from King Soopers.
The program was aided greatly two years later by a grant from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice and a decision by the courts to refer for treatment people who were facing trial for nonviolent drug offenses. But it was the cooperation and blessing of Denver District Court Judge Bill Meyer (who oversees the city's drug court) that provided a real shot in the arm to the acupuncture program.
Meyer's first exposure to acupuncture as addiction therapy came through other drug courts around the country. "Miami, Oakland, Portland--they all use acupuncture as a primary adjunct to group therapy," he says. "When I originally looked at it, I said, `I don't care if it's acupuncture or wearing a beanie and loud clothes or strolling through the park or a traditional-type therapy that makes someone stop taking drugs. It's what works that counts.' And what our real task is, is matching individuals with a therapy that works."
After speaking with other drug-court judges as well as treatment providers and researchers, Meyer became convinced that, for some people, acupuncture combined with counseling is a valid treatment.
Since the latter half of last year, when Denver's drug court opened and Meyer began referring clients to Project Recovery, he says, he has received "some pretty incredible testimonials. I remember in particular one person who came to me and said, `Those people saved my life.'"
Meyer is so convinced of its benefits that his court is attempting to come up with some funds to assist the program.
Denver's jail chief John Simonet also proved receptive to Henderson's entreaties to start a jail-based program, but the city's budget office nixed funding for it. It was the Division of Criminal Justice grant that paved the way for the program's startup last November.
Reports from the inmates apparently have been positive thus far. "I've talked to a couple of them, and they've said it has helped them rid themselves of cravings for drugs that they've been involved with for many years," says Simonet. "It does give them a sense of well-being, and if it reduces their anxiety, maybe that makes them less vulnerable to drugs."