Heroin Users Seeking Treatment Face Long Wait Lists

By Zachary Siegel 09/09/15

Federally funded treatment lacks the resources to help many in need.


Along the Eastern Seaboard where heroin use is especially rampant, addicts seeking treatment experience months of waiting for a bed. In Massachusetts, drug users may wait weeks. In Florida, some have waited over a month. In Maine, some have waited as long as 18 months.

According to an NBC report, one Ohio woman feared so much for her life while she waited for a bed that she asked the judge to send her to jail so she could stay clean. “The jails here are basically detox facilities,” a Portland, Maine, resident told the Portland Press Herald.

The situation out west is just as grim. According to a report from Snohomish County jail in Washington, it has become the county’s “largest ‘de facto’ detox center over the last two years.”

A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that nationwide only 11% of drug users receive treatment by treatment centers. The authors of the study write, “Indeed, the individuals in need of treatment cite 'long wait lists' as a primary reason for not accessing it."

Additionally, a 2008 study found that 40% of people on wait lists will drop off after two weeks of waiting. Unfortunately, the woman who requested jail until she found a bed may have been on the right track.

To address the need for drug treatment, specifically for heroin users, the White House last month unveiled a multi-million dollar heroin response strategy that aims to treat drug users rather than prosecute them. Michael Botticelli, director of the ONDCP, is calling the initiative a “smart on crime” approach.

Similarly, democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton announced last week a $10 billion plan to address the opiate crisis. Like Obama, Clinton’s plan places treatment above incarceration and focuses on offering medication-assisted treatments (MAT), such as Suboxone and naltrexone.

“Plain and simple, drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a moral failing—and we must treat it as such,” Clinton said.

The new strategy offered by the Obama Administration is issuing grants for states most impacted. Whether or not the plan decreases the wait time for treatment is yet to be known.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.