By Jordyn Grzelewski
Last month, journalists from The Vindicator, Tribune Chronicle of Warren, 21 WFMJ-TV and WKSU/National Public Radio came together with members of the community to become part of the solution to the opioid epidemic.
At forums that took place in Youngstown, Warren and Struthers, people in recovery, people whose loved ones died from addiction, law-enforcement officials, recovery professionals, journalists and others discussed how the epidemic has affected our community, what’s caused the crisis and what can be done to solve it.
At the end, participants wrote down questions for the media to answer.
This story looks at two questions: Who is providing long-term treatment in the area? What is marijuana’s role in addiction and the opioid epidemic?
Recovery experts say there is no one definition for “long-term treatment.” They emphasized each person requires an individualized approach, adding that treatment should be viewed as a “continuum of care.”
“In my mind, I believe long-term recovery is a program that provides a continuum of services that keep the client engaged in treatment beyond detox and provides recovery supports as the individual begins to build community supports,” said Lauren Thorp, director of recovery and youth programs for the Trumbull County Mental Health & Recovery Board and project director for the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention.
“This isn’t necessarily in an inpatient setting, or ‘rehab,’ as I believe most people refer to when talking about ‘long-term treatment,’” she said.
She pointed to First Step Recovery in Warren as an example of a treatment facility that provides these services.
She said First Step provides inpatient detox, campus-supportive housing, recovery housing and outpatient treatment. From there, individuals can live on their own.
“This seems to be the ideal situation for long-term recovery,” Thorp said.
Brenda Heidinger, associate director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, described a similar approach to long-term treatment.
Various treatment components might include detox, inpatient care, intensive outpatient treatment, outpatient services and relapse prevention. She emphasized the right combination of those services is based on each individual’s needs.
Locally, Meridian HealthCare and Neil Kennedy Recovery Center provide the full continuum of care. Meridian offers residential treatment, while Neil Kennedy offers partial hospitalization, Heidinger said.
Anyone interested in substance-use treatment should first schedule an assessment, she said. Any treatment facility can provide an assessment by a counselor.
Although there has been some debate about marijuana’s role in addiction to other substances and even its ability to assist in treating other addictions, local experts on treatment and recovery are adamant about the dangers of the drug.
They are quick to note, too, there has been little research on the health effects of marijuana, even as more states have legalized marijuana for medicinal uses.
As the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year: “Yet for all of its [marijuana’s] ubiquity, a comprehensive new report says the precise health effects of marijuana on those who use it remain something of a mystery – and the federal government continues to erect major barriers to research that would provide much-needed answers.”
Heidinger said marijuana’s connection to the opioid epidemic is difficult to characterize.
“There’s no definitive research that could say X amount of people use marijuana go on to use heroin. What I always talk about is the fact that, well, just using marijuana doesn’t mean you’ll go on to use harder drugs,” she said. “But I’ve never talked to someone who uses harder drugs who hasn’t used marijuana.”
There also has been some debate as to whether marijuana helps or hurts recovery from addiction to other drugs.
A CNN story from earlier this year, for example, quoted a California treatment provider as saying medicinal cannabis can be used as a detox tool.
Others have a much different take.
Dr. Joseph Sitarik of Neil Kennedy, speaking at a recent opioid summit at the Covelli Centre, said he does not think people in recovery can safely use marijuana because all substance use, whether it’s marijuana or an opioid, ends the same way: Dopamine release.
“I’m not addicted to a drug. I’m addicted to a feeling in my brain. I don’t think we can safely get high in any capacity,” he said of people suffering from a substance-use disorder.
Angela Divito, executive director of the Coalition for a Drug-Free Mahoning County, hit back at the idea marijuana can help with recovery.
“Myths and junk research lend themselves to the notion that substance abuse can be thwarted by the use of other substances,” she said. “It is common to hear statements such as ‘Marijuana use decreases opioid use’ or ‘Marijuana is a harmless substitute for opioid use.’
“These are not facts, and these hypotheses have not been proven by research,” she said.
She stressed, too, research has found marijuana itself is addictive.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 30 percent of marijuana users “may have some degree of marijuana use disorder” and an estimated 9 percent of users will become dependent on it.
Numerous experts, too, note marijuana has become increasingly more potent.
In testimony to Warren City Council earlier this year, April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, recalled an incident where someone she knew was taken to a hospital for a possible psychotic break. Later, it was determined the person did not have a psychotic break – the episode had been caused by marijuana he had smoked.
“The marijuana was not laced with anything. Marijuana is just that potent now,” she said.