By Jordan Uhl
Damion Thomas said he has been in trouble for most of his life.
Drinking. Drugs. Rehabilitation programs. Slip-ups. More drugs. More trouble. Heroin.
“I lost everything. I haven’t seen my child in two years. My house, my car, my job. I lost trust in my family, my wife. I lost my pride, self-respect,” said the 36-year-old graduate of Community Corrections Association, a Youngstown-based alternative rehabilitation program.
Thomas, who has been serving a two-year sentence for trafficking heroin, said one little white pill that he takes three times every day is what is going to keep him straight for good this time.
In September 2011, Thomas and other inmates of CCA were offered a shot at redemption in the form of a pill some are calling a miracle drug. Baclofen, a muscle relaxant commonly used to treat spasms, is finding its way into substance-abuse recovery programs.
Supporters, such as CCA Director Rick Billak, claim the drug cures addiction by suppressing cravings for drugs and alcohol.
Thomas says that the pill is giving him back his life.
“I’m tired of this lifestyle. I’ve been in trouble for the past 32 years,” Thomas said. “I want to be a productive citizen again.”
Billak said CCA gave the drug to 56 of its residents who asked for it. He said it is being administered on a voluntary basis. There have been 11 relapses among the 56 participants — an 82 percent success rate, Billak said.
Even Billak, however, admits that the success rates may change once CCA residents are released and have access to illegal drugs.
Billak said the drug is inexpensive and nonaddictive and has only minimal side effects.
Although Billak and Thomas say they are confident in the drug, Baclofen is not without controversy.
Advocates of more traditional counseling-based approaches to recovery worry that the drug promises a quick fix to what they see as a lifelong illness, one that requires long-term support and commitment.
The drug was originally self- prescribed in high doses by Olivier Ameisen, a French physician, who used it to treat his own addiction. After his success at overcoming his alcohol addiction, he wrote the book “The End of My Addiction,” and began touting the pill as the cure.
Thomas and another CCA graduate, Anthony Williams, both say their cravings for alcohol and opiates have disappeared.
The two are now beginning to see their former, normal lives back within reach.
Williams, who said he misses his relationships with his three sons, looks forward to trying to rebuild a family.
“Wow, it’d be great [for them] to have a dad that’s not using. I could be doing everything I’m supposed to be doing as a father,” Williams said.
Williams faced six drug-possession charges, all felonies, the most severe being charges of possession of cocaine. He was ordered by the court to participate in residential treatment at CCA.
Program participants start on 10 milligrams a day and slowly work their way up to four daily doses of 30 milligrams, or what the overseeing physician, Dr. John Vargo, calls the “threshold.”
Initially, patients will experience fatigue, but no other side effects have been reported, said Harvey Littler III, the substance coordinator at CCA.
Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a physician and assistant professor at Brown University, is wary of prescribing high doses.
“We need improved clinical trials,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Ameisen’s book reports one case. One case is not enough evidence.”
In Dr. Leggio’s own studies, he’s found that 60 milligrams has been a suitable dosage, although it varies between patients.
Those in the CCA program will stay on the drug for 142 days. They can then wend off should they so desire, but some plan to stay on it.
The fact that Baclofen promises addiction recovery is part of the reason why those who support such treatment programs as Alcoholics Anonymous are skeptical.
Alcoholics Anonymous and others, who believe in a 12-step program, say there is no cure for alcoholism or drug addiction.
“We’ve got alcoholism over here. It’s a disease. Is that a cure for disease?” said “Billy,” a representative at Youngstown Area Inter Group of Alcoholics Anonymous. Billy refused to give his name because members of AA take a vow of anonymity.
“Paul,” another YAIG representative, said he didn’t think anything could replace a 12-step program.
While AA officials question Baclofen, Billak has his own concerns about the effectiveness of AA.
“The only thing that bothers me about AA is because it’s anonymous, you can’t establish its effectiveness,” Billak said. “It’d be nice if they could do a blind study on the effectiveness of AA and release its results.”
However, Billak said many of CCA’s clients attend AA meetings for support, and couple it with their Baclofen treatment.
“While in [the program] they’re also in our other treatment elements within our facility. We use cognitive behavioral therapy,” Billak said.
As CCA is a closed environment, the success rates may be inherently skewed due to the complete removal of any temptation to use, Billak said.
“If drugs are available and they’re not motivated, it’s not going to work,” Billak admitted. “But the research shows the longer they maintain sobriety, the longer they will stay sober.”
The U.S. National Institutes of Health conducted clinical trials examining the effectiveness of Baclofen and concluded that, when used to treat alcohol withdrawal, Baclofen does show signs of possible benefits, but Dr. Charles Gessert feels more clinical trials need to be conducted.
Gessert, who coordinated those tests, said there is more to battling addiction than merely addressing the physical cravings for the drug.
“You have to be worried about the social and psychological aspects of alcohol dependency,” Gessert said in a recent telephone interview. “Baclofen is just the physical aspect.”
Gessert said he knew nothing of the CCA program but felt its success rate claim might be distorted.
“I’m not skeptical in their findings, just in how it’s defined,” he said.
Leggio has done three studies using Baclofen as a treatment method and sees a lot of potential.
“We are very optimistic about this medication,” Leggio said.
“The problem is, people think it will solve the problem completely.”
Leggio is in the process of evaluating how beneficial Baclofen can be used in treating people who drink and smoke, and has noticed “robust benefits.”
From a phamacology standpoint, Leggio said Baclofen, like any other drug, isn’t for everyone. It’s now a matter of identifying suitable patients.
“While it may be a miracle drug for patient X, it may be noneffective for patient Y,” Leggio said.
Littler said other residents at CCA have begun to take notice of their peers’ success.
“It’s getting to the point where they come to me and say, ‘Can I get on that?’” Littler said.
For Thomas, the decision to get on Baclofen was an easy one.
“To me, it’s a no-brainer not to try it,” Thomas said.
“Especially if you’ve been out there trying other street drugs,” Willams added. “It can’t hurt you; it can only help.”
Billak is baffled as to why other agencies in the area haven’t picked up on the idea. He said he does understand why the pharmaceutical industry would oppose Baclofen as opposed to suboxone and methadone, alternative treatments with costs of up to 90 percent more per prescription.
“It’s generic; no one makes money on it,” Billak said. “And there may be some for-profit agencies that make money on relapse.”
Other stakeholders in the area are testing it on a pilot basis. Judge John Durkin has permitted some participants in his felony drug court program to use Baclofen as an acceptable treatment method through CCA.
Littler said the lifestyle changes CCA’s program stresses are necessary for a full recovery, such as job readiness and an introspective exploration.
Willams plans to attend ITT Tech and major in graphic design upon his release. Thomas intends to go back to work as a plumber.
“You’ll hear family members say, ‘Wow, I got my husband back. I got my father back.’ That’s the end result we’re looking for,” Billak said.
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