Red Ribbon Week: Cocaine’s popularity fuels new approaches to sobriety

Counties look to drug courts as scientists test vaccines, tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 28, 2011 

When he finally decided to kick his crack habit, Ted Forrester found strength in a higher power. After three decades of abusing drugs and alcohol, the Phenix City man turned his life over to God and headed down a new path.

“Drugs was just as a symptom of a bigger problem,” Forrester said. “I haven’t touched it since.”

While Forrester has been drug free since 2004, countless cocaine and crack addicts have tried and failed to get clean, succumbing to cravings and stumbling into relapse.

What works for one addict may be lost on another, and just as each user turned to drugs for different reasons, there also are various routes to quitting.

Cocaine use, by all accounts, remains widespread despite myriad efforts to forestall drug abuse. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated in 2008 that 1.9 million Americans had used cocaine in the past month.

Nearly 360,000 of those reported using crack.

The ubiquity of the drug -- and its impact on society -- has fueled some innovative approaches toward finding solutions:

Cocaine vaccines

Scientists are increasingly optimistic that a cocaine vaccine may one day help with addiction. Early this year, researchers announced an anti-cocaine immunity found among mice that were given a vaccine that combined the common cold virus with a particle mimicking cocaine.

Mice receiving the shot appeared less hyperactive after ingesting doses of cocaine compared to their unvaccinated counterparts.

“Our very dramatic data shows that we can protect mice against the effects of cocaine,” Ronald G. Crystal of Weill Cornell Medical College said when the study was released in January, “and we think this approach could be very promising in fighting addiction in humans.”

While they’re being tested in humans, the vaccines haven’t been approved for commercial use.

The idea behind the shot is to wipe out the “high” that cocaine users experience by creating antibodies that attach to the drug and stop it from reaching the brain. Some observers have voiced concern that the shot won’t eliminate cravings associated with addiction, and that vaccinated users might overdose trying to get high.

Researchers have stressed the vaccine would be reserved for addicts serious about quitting, and that it would be combined with other forms of treatment. A viable vaccine could be life-changing for addicts who just can’t seem to stop, scientists say.

“People have been trying for years now to find a treatment and none of them has worked,” said Dr. Eugene Somoza, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati and director of the Cincinnati Addiction Research Center who is testing a cocaine vaccine. “You can’t go see a therapist every week or two weeks for the next 40 years.”

Another possibility, Somoza said, may be “to just create the antibodies themselves.”

Drug courts

With prisons brimming, financially strapped states and municipalities are increasingly turning to alternative sentencing for criminal defendants charged with cocaine and other drug-related offenses. Court officials on both sides of the Chattahoochee River say they’ve seen encouraging numbers from drug courts.

Even with the rise of methamphetamine abuse, they still see a steady stream of crack and powder cocaine cases, as well as other drugs like marijuana.

“The whole concept is that rather than incarcerate everyone, you try to provide treatment in lieu of incarceration,” said District Judge Michael J. Bellamy, who presides over adult and juvenile drug courts in Russell County. “The stats show clearly that 75 to 80 percent of the people that are in jail are there as a result of addiction. If you can address the problem, you eliminate them from being part of the system and the cycle.”

Judges in both counties said they’re starting to see cases in which juveniles are given marijuana blunts on the street that are laced with cocaine, apparently as a means of enhancing the euphoria. Some insist they’ve never used cocaine but test positive for it during screenings.

Mary Bode, who oversees drug court in Muscogee County, said a number of children get involved with drugs to cope with grief or abuse issues at home.

“A lot of them just want to get high so they don’t hurt emotionally,” she said. “We engage the entire family to fix the underlying problem that is causing the child to use drugs.”

Grassroots groups

The Rev. Willie Phillips of the south Columbus Neighborhood Watch program Winterfield on the Move Against Drugs knows crack cocaine is a threat to his community, which straddles North Lumpkin and Cusseta Roads.

“I ride the neighborhood so I know all the crack houses, and I follow them to the crack houses, and I see them go in and buy it and come back out,” he said.

Each time he nails down a specific location, he passes that information to the police. “I call the detectives and let them know what house is suspicious, what I’ve seen, and let them handle it.”

The police depend on residents like Phillips to help them clean up areas that have become havens for drug dealers, said Capt. Gil Slouchick of the Columbus Police Department’s Special Operations Unit, which conducts drug raids in Muscogee County.

“To get rid of those, you have to have the help of the people in the neighborhoods,” he said. “They’re not responsible for cleaning it up, but they have to give us a helping hand.”

But getting neighbors to form a group to fight a network of drug dealers can be difficult, Phillips said. “In this part of town, it’s hard to get one started because people don’t like to snitch on one another, and that’s why in this part of town you have that bad problem because everybody wants to go in their house and lock the doors. Nobody wants to get involved.”

It takes leadership, commitment and strength, he said. “With someone that’s strong in a neighborhood working with law enforcement, you can get rid of the problem,” Phillips said.

Residents become intimidated, anticipating retaliation from armed, territorial criminals if witnesses cooperate with police. “If people come together, they don’t have to be afraid of the drug dealers,” Phillips said. “Drug dealers are just as a afraid of the neighbors as anybody.”

The police can’t do it alone, Slouchick said. “People have to try to take back their neighborhoods and allow us to help them, because without them, we can go out there and put people in jail over and over and over again, but we’ll never be able to eradicate it from a neighborhood without the help of the neighbors.”

Columbus residents interested in initiating a Neighborhood Watch program in their area may call the Crime Prevention Unit at 706-653-3173.

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