After watching the effects of a methamphetamine epidemic sweep across the state in the middle of the last decade, State Senator Larry Robinson knew something had to be done to alleviate the damage caused by the dangerous drug.
Today, a rehabilitation center bearing Robinson’s namesake is celebrating six years of success in helping treat addictions to meth and other substances.
“There was such a huge number of addiction issues throughout the state,” Robinson said. “They were having meth labs busted in just about every county, and our prison population was on the grow with a significant amount of people there because of addiction.”
Robinson stated that the prison system in North Dakota has about 1,450 inmates, with 25 to 30 percent of those in jail because of a clear problem with drugs.
“What we had in the prison system was people going in because of addiction, and in nine months, they’d get out and two months later they’d be back in. But with proper treatment, jail time would not be necessary.”
Instead of adding to a revolving-door problem on the corrections side, Robinson saw an avenue for treatment and rehabilitation, and brought his idea for a 20-bed addiction treatment center to the North Dakota Legislature in 2005.
He said the key focus was to have a treatment program that intervenes early.
“With methamphetamines, you don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “With meth, you might have days, maybe weeks at best before it will take you down.”
Eventually, $250,000 was approved through the Legislature, and the Robinson Recovery Center was added to the ShareHouse, Inc. chemical dependency program in Fargo in 2006. In appreciation of Senator Robinson’s efforts, ShareHouse asked if they could name the new center after him.
“Needless to say, I was a bit overwhelmed,” Robinson said, “and I didn’t know how to respond to that, but I talked to my family and they said ‘why not?’”
And so the Robinson Recovery Center went forward as a pilot program for treatment of methamphetamine addiction, the first of its kind in the nation. RRC Program Director Bill Sparke said the center is unique in several different ways, as it is entirely funded by grants from the state, it accepts residents under any circumstances regardless of insurance or their ability to pay, and it uses a matrix approach, not just a straight 12-step program.
“Our people come in with absolutely nothing sometimes,” Sparke said. “We have people who are homeless and haven’t been able to hold a job. How we treat people is unique.”
Robinson said the demand for the program is astounding, and there is a waiting list to get in. In 2007, the facility doubled its capacity to 30 male beds and 10 female beds, and soon after, the program began treating opiate and cocaine addictions.
“In 2009 we noticed that meth use in the state had declined somewhat, and our beds weren’t being used like they should, so we expanded our treatment base,” said Sparke. “Now, about half our residents are in for alcohol, one fourth for meth, and the rest for opiates and painkillers.”
The landscape of addiction has changed in the past decade, with an increase in opiates, prescription pain medications and heroin, but meth is still a lingering threat.
“It’s kind of come back up again,” Sparke said. “It was a primarily rural problem, with people cooking it in barns and garages, but the home cooking has really decreased, because there’s less availability of ingredients. Now we see a lot of it coming from bigger labs in Mexico and California.”
The RRC program primarily focuses on changing patients’ attitudes about their addiction.
“We see their mindset change after the first 30 days, when they hit the wall,” Sparke said. “All the things they’re trying to avoid by using have to be dealt with.”
He recounted the story of a patient who had been using drugs since he was 12.
“He has been in six different treatment centers, the state hospital four times and prison twice. He was at Robinson for six months the first time, and relapsed after two weeks, but he came back in for another eight months, and now he’s been clean for a year, working full time, and is back with his family. He will say that ‘Robinson saved my life.’”
Sparke said each patient has a picture taken for their chart when they first start the program. “To see the physical transformation two or three months later, they’ll say ‘I can’t believe I looked like that.’ The success stories we have, we can see it both mentally and physically.”
To help ease back into a drug-free life, patients nearing graduation can be put on transition status, meaning they are free to go to work and stay at their apartment, “but they always have that safe base to come back to and can still be part of our community,” Sparke said. “We find the people who do a longer transition have the best success.”
RRC has treated 510 unique residents since its opening, and its patients average 40 percent successful completion. “That says that there’s over 200 people in North Dakota that have completed treatment, are not in prison, staying sober and are reunited with their families,” said Sparke. “That’s 200 people that probably would’ve ended up in prison, in the state hospital or dead. To us, that is a success.”
Due to its operating at capacity, talks are in the works for expanding the center, or possibly building a satellite campus in western North Dakota. Although he is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the center, Senator Robinson visits periodically to observe the life-changing efforts brought about by his legislation. For him, the mission of the center is very simple:
“If we can help even one person that’s struggling with addiction, we can save possibly a life and certainly a family or a marriage.”