MY VIEW • A fatal shooting in downtown has some residents making a scapegoat of a drug treatment that actually saves addicts' lives

Within hours of March 11's tragic shooting in downtown Portland, the murmurs had already started. 'They knew each other from a methadone clinic,' people said, as if that explained everything.

Addiction is a disease. Unfortunately, there is such a negative stigma surrounding the disease of addiction that even well-educated and well-intentioned individuals are not helping those who are trying to recover.

People fear what they don't understand, and in this case methadone provides a convenient scapegoat.

In the next day's Oregonian, Mayor Vera Katz was quoted as saying she'd 'always been concerned' about the methadone maintenance therapy clinic a few blocks from the shooting site.

'We have had conversations even after it was sited because there were lots of complaints about activities outside the clinic É but the clients there are supposedly on the road to a healthy and a positive lifestyle,' Katz said.

What is meant by 'supposedly'? Is the implication that because they are clients in such a program, they are really not on the road to recovery? If the victim and shooter had known each other from a dialysis treatment center, would the mayor have said they 'supposedly' were being treated for kidney failure?

Despite the best efforts of the health care and addiction recovery communities, there still are many myths and misperceptions about addiction and its treatment.

Drug dealing and crimes to people and property occur all over our city, not just downtown or near a methadone treatment center. I believe the mention of activities outside the clinic is disingenuous, given the negative activities that I see in Pioneer Courthouse Square and the surrounding blocks Ñ which, by the way, have nothing to do with methadone.

The fact is that methadone maintenance therapy, or MMT, is a good thing. In 1997, an expert panel at a National Institutes of Health conference on effective medical treatment of heroin addiction concluded: 'Heroin addiction is a medical disorder that can be effectively treated in methadone treatment programs,' and panel members strongly recommended expanding access to methadone treatment.

In its 1990 policy statement, the American Society of Addiction Medicine said, 'Abstinence, usually accepted as the primary goal of treatment, is not feasible as an exclusive goal for all opioid-dependent persons. Methadone maintenance is effective and safe, and is an integral part of addiction medicine.'

Research has shown that methadone maintenance decreases the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C by decreasing the practice of needle-sharing common among active heroin users. Other research has shown that MMT decreases crime by controlling the craving for opiates that leads some heroin addicts to commit crimes to get money for their next fix.

Every month the program directors of the five MMT programs in Multnomah County meet with a staff person from the county's Office of Community Mental Health and Addiction Services. In these meetings, they agree on standard policies and procedures for maintaining the highest treatment standards, strategize about how to decrease illicit drug use and discuss security measures.

Are local government and the local community rushing to support increased access to this proven and effective treatment? Not exactly.

Recently, a new methadone clinic was blocked from opening in North Portland, an area that currently does not have MMT. A major turning point in its attempt to locate there was a public community meeting at which a police officer reportedly said, 'We've just cleaned up this neighborhood, we don't need a bunch of methadone junkies hanging around.'

Clearly this officer doesn't read Consumer Reports. Back in 1972, a Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs said: 'A patient on methadone maintenance is commonly thought to be addicted to methadone and might therefore be called a methadone addict. The term 'methadone addict' is seriously misleading, however, since Ñ as we have seen Ñ the patient on methadone maintenance does not resemble in the least the popular stereotype of the addict. He neither acts like an addict nor thinks of himself as an addict.

'To avoid confusion,' the report said, 'the terms heroin addict and methadone patient have become standard usage.'

So, let's not blame methadone for this tragic event.

If you don't understand MMT or the disease of addiction, then seek professional information and education. It's available in the Portland community from trained professionals who are trying to help people recover Ñ even from ignorance.

Ted Amann is a registered nurse certified in psychiatric nursing at Care-Oregon Inc.

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