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So-called miracle medication for heroin addiction being offered to Harford County inmates

Posted at 11:39 PM, Dec 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-21 23:39:06-05

On any given day, 340 inmates are behind bars at the Harford County Detention Center.  Nearly 60 percent of them are addicted to opioids like heroin and prescription pills.

"Allot of times when people are incarcerated and they go back out, if they start using what they were using prior they can overdose," said Harford County Detention Center Community Services Coordinator, Roblyn Aigner.

RELATED: New substance abuse unit starting up at Harford County Detention Center

To try to stop the deadly overdoses, and help addicts stay clean and out of jail, inmates being released have the chance to be armed with a dose of naltrexone.  Sold under the name Vivitrol, the medication works in the brain to reduce the itch, the need for a high.

"So it actually like sits on top of the receptors in the brain so that if somebody uses opiates or alcohol it doesn't get into the receptors, so no dopamine gets released so therefore they're not going to get any of the euphoric high and they don’t have any feelings or effects of it," Aigner said.

The medication is given in a monthly shot. For about 28 days users essentially can't get high even if they pop pills or do dope.       

The program has been offered to addicts at the lock-up in Harford County since 2015, and so far 35 prisoners have been given the shots.

"We've had a lot of success with it, I have a lot of people that feel like they're at their rock bottom and they're scared to go back into the community, the world that they know is when they're using drugs," said Aigner.

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For many people using drugs then trying to kick the habit is a revolving door, cycling between getting high and going through recovery programs. It can be a daily struggle for addicts to stay clean.

"It took for one person to use in front of me one time, and that sent me back into relapse," said Steven Quinan.

The 25-year-old has battled addiction for the last eight years. He's moved states, tried rehab and sober living multiple times, and even spent months behind bars. Yet he always ended up going back to prescription pills and heroin. It only changed when Quinan landed in the Harford County Detention Center last April and learned about the Vivitrol program.

"Oh I was trying to get on the bandwagon as fast as possible because I knew that I could not fight this addiction on my own," said Quinan.

Everyone coming into the correctional facility is screened for the program. Potential candidates must have an alcohol or opioid addiction, get blood work done, and have to be clean for a week. Then it's up to them to get the shot.

"We actually give the shot to the inmates here at the Detention Center prior to them getting out so that they have a better chance of success in their re-entry into the community," Aigner said.

The injection buys the inmates a month, so if they don't stick with the shots and haven't developed coping strategies, they could relapse.           

Depending on insurance, participants are either connected to an outpatient center to continue treatment, or they follow up at the Harford County Health Department. Officials say Vivitrol works best when it’s coupled with counseling, and the user is committed to kicking their addiction.

"I think they're more successful in the recovery, they're more engaged in their recovery, their lives are being more productive,” Harford County Health Department psychiatrist, Dr. Julie Stancliff said. “They're getting jobs, they're not using, they're restoring their relationships with their loved ones and family, and they've been more productive in society as a whole, and healthier."

Some experts say Vivitrol is a miracle medication that can revolutionize the treatment for heroin and prescription pill dependence.  It's not a narcotic, so there is no worry it will be sold, traded or abused like other FDA-approved meds used to treat opioid addiction.          

Health officials usually recommend patients get six-shots. Quinan is on track to get the injections for 12 months.

"It's actually, it's a brand new start and I wish I would've done this a lot sooner," he said.  “There are no cravings, and I mean, you take the human factor out of it, you get it once a month and you don't have to worry about it."

He's nearly ten months sober and counting. Most drugs destroy your life and relationships, but Quinan says this one saved his. He's reconnected with loved ones, is holding down a job, and for once is turning his attention to his future.

"I'm proud of myself,” said Quinan. “And I know my family and the friends I do associate with are also proud of me."

Harford County was one of the first, now Vivitrol is being used in correctional facilities in 11 other counties in the state.  Detention Center officials say there's actually a high number of inmates who qualify for the program, yet are not taking advantage of it.

The Health Department started offering Vivitrol to patients in the county back in 2012, and that program is much busier than the one for inmates.  From Fiscal Year 2015 to Fiscal Year 2016 there has been a nearly 29 percent increase in people receiving Vivitrol injections.

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