Inside the cramped 14th Street NW headquarters of the African Wholistic Health Clinic, Kokayi Patterson sells acupuncture the way a minister sells Jesus. Surrounded by AIDS prevention posters and anatomically correct wax dolls, the man is rapturous, entrancing. Listening to him, you feel your eyes opening on a glorious new world of health and happiness through the miracle of herbs and ancient Chinese therapies. By the time he finishes his spiel, you’re ready to proclaim your faith—maybe even sign up for one of those colonics he keeps mentioning.
Acupuncture, of course, is the ancient Chinese art of healing illness and relieving pain by inserting tiny needles into a patient’s body at strategic locations. But Patterson is preaching a new use: acupuncture and related new-age therapies as a cure for drug addiction. More to the point, as “a certified acupuncture detox specialist,” he hopes to persuade D.C. government to bankroll his crusade to help drug-addicted criminals come clean.
“We’re in a drug culture that feels we should fight drugs with drugs,” says Patterson, who holds that acupuncture can treat heroin addicts more effectively than such pharmaceutical substitutes as methadone. Unlike methadone—as addictive as anyopiate—acupuncture is said to use the body’s natural mechanisms to inhibit the craving for drugs. Another claim is that it aids in the detox process, reducing chills and pain. Likewise for crack and cocaine addicts: Acupuncture calms them, Patterson says, and helps them sleep the way no drug can. In theory, acupuncture restores balance to the body and spirit by prompting the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. He says that addicts hooked for 15 years have come to him and been cured.
In short—like Jesus—acupuncture works miracles.
It sounds fantastic, but lots of people seem ready to stand up and testify. Among these is Jay Carver, director of D.C.’s PretrialServices Agency, who confirms that Patterson is one of several acupuncturists under consideration for a city contract to provide drug treatment to criminal offenders. The contract would be awarded as part of D.C.’s proposed “drug court,” an experimental program designed to get nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders out of jail and into treatment programs. The hope is that, by kicking the drug habit, the addicts will kick the crime habit as well.
The District has received a five-year, $5 million federal grant for the drug court, which is modeled after a program in Dade County, Fla. D.C.’s program will be administered by the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, and will initially enroll about 600 addicts a year.
“There are a lot of active hard-core drug users in this city, and they’re concentrated in the criminal justice system,” says Carver. Half of D.C.’s 12,000 prisoners are drug offenders, many of them users and addicts. Currently, the city often pays for these offenders to receive drug treatment both before and after sentencing. But there’s always a dearth of programs, since city-authorized clinics (which also take private patients) offer just 4,000 outpatient treatment slots, while residential programs have only a few hundred beds.
When the drug court is in place, demands for treatment will rise, and Patterson, with his particular brand of African New Age medicine, hopes to help satisfy that need.
It’s not just a pipe dream. D.C.’s drug court will definitely include acupuncture as part of a “wholistic” program. Carver says that he became sold on acupuncture when he saw it used in Florida—where, according to promotional materials produced by Florida’s Diversion and Treatment program, acupuncture greatly improved addicts’ chances for recovery. In 1990, out of 1,613 addicts treated through a court-mandated program that included acupuncture, only 16 were rearrested within a year.
“Acupuncture is not treatment in itself,” Carver stresses; rather, he hopes, it can supplement traditional treatment, which begins with a supervised detox period in which the addict endures painful withdrawal symptoms. Detox is followed by intensive counseling sessions and 12-step support groups that last anywhere from six weeks to a year—often more, since relapse is common.
Acupuncture could be used to relax the addict and make him more receptive to counseling. The procedure is almost unbelievably simple: Four or five needles are inserted into the addict’s outer ear; the patient sits quietly for 45 minutes or so; the needles are removed; the patient leaves. During the detox period, addicts are treated every day for several days; the treatment becomes less frequent—and, ideally, less necessary—as time passes.
Studies are beginning to confirm this new use for an ancient medical art: A recent article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment reports that, in 1987, acupuncture greatly improved the success of a city-funded, five-day residential detox program in Portland, Ore. There, addicts receiving acupuncture were six times less likely to return in the next six months than those who received only conventional treatment. And the program’s overall completion rate jumped from 60 to 92 percent.
“Asking why it works is a little like how gravity works. We don’t have explanations for everything,” says Dr. Michael Smith, director of the substance abuse program at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, whose program was the model for Dade County’s. Smith, who has been treating addicts with acupuncture for 19 years, claims that the practice is quite predictable and that it’s becoming common and accepted.
Not by everyone, though. Insurance companies often refuse to pay for acupuncture treatments, and a recent triennial report to Congress by the federal Department of Health and Human Services declined to include acupuncture in its list of innovative drug treatment procedures. In the past, the federal Office of Treatment Programs refused grants to treatment programs using acupuncture; in 1990, however, after lobbying from the National Association of Criminal Justice Planners and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the agency gave the go-ahead. Currently, the criminal justice system funds the vast majority of acupuncture-based treatment programs.
Patterson couldn’t be happier that the District may soon sign on. “We need money,” he says bluntly.
A tour confirms his assertion. The nonprofit clinic—open since May—occupies a few rooms in the basement of a town house, where Patterson’s sister answers phones. Relying on an all-volunteer staff, the clinic can currently treat only about five to seven patients a day. Some are drug addicts who show up of their own accord; others are people who want to quit smoking or who seek relief for any number of ailments—stress, PMS, even endometriosis—that mainstream medicine can’t remedy. (Patterson is also interested in using acupuncture to alleviate the symptoms of AIDS.) Most are unable to pay; however, a couple of generous patients covered the first five months’ rent, Patterson asserts. Another patient donated an extra treatment table.
“That let us know that there is a spiritual anointing of this facility,” he says.
Maybe too spiritual. Many of the clinic’s treatments are unconventional: These include herbology, colonic therapy, Reiki healing (don’t ask), and reflexology. During the walk-through, Patterson elaborates on the qualities necessary for a good acupuncturist: “Energy is key. People with a lot of negativity won’t have that energy. That negative energy runs down from your arms to those needles.” At another point, he opines that “people who use drugs are victims of the universe.”
He introduces Prem Deben—a “certified hypnotherapist” whose card identifies him as an expert in therapeutic nutrition, internal cleansers, and nutritional elixirs. In addition, Patterson says, the clinic offers an “educator,” a psychic, a few medical doctors….Wait, back up. A psychic?
“Yes, Reverend Hazel Cassell,” Patterson enthuses; the reverend, he notes, is very famous and has her own radio show. Cassell attends to the patient’s psyche while Patterson and the others attend to the body. The reverend shows up during the tour (though no clients do) and is pleased to discuss her work.
“I do the laying on of hands, exorcism, affirmation therapy, motivation therapy, visualization, decree, herbs, past, present, and future,” Cassell says matter-of-factly.
The clinic’s chief acupuncturist is Yun Lin Nie. Patterson has also been certified by the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, founded by Lincoln Hospital’s Michael Smith. The remainder of his credentials are sketchy: Patterson, 41, says he first saw acupuncture used in detox when he was recovering from heroin addiction after getting mixed up with the law as a young man. He has a high-school equivalency degree from Washington Technical School and took college classes at Southeastern University. At one point, he states that he is a doctor; he later retracts that, explaining that he is studying to be a “doctor of Oriental medicine” at the Acupuncture School of Maryland.
But Patterson is no newcomer to the drug abuse industrial complex. He boasts 22 years of experience working with Regional Addiction Prevention (RAP), the city’s oldest residential drug treatment program, which is well-regarded and has also been experimenting with acupuncture.
That experience has soured him on corporate America in general and the pharmaceutical industry in particular. He blames the latter for acupuncture’s low standing among mainstream drug treatment professionals. The big drug companies, he says, make “billions” of dollars off heroin addicts and have no intention of letting a cheaper, nonaddictive substitute like acupuncture cut into methadone’s market share. All of this sounds plausible enough—until Patterson mentions that one acronym, the precursor to every conspiracy theory set forth in the past 40 years.
The CIA. Patterson marvels about how “they” can see a “microdot from space,” but can’t keep bricks of cocaine from entering the country; the implied message is that the CIA is responsible for the nation’s drug scourge. Considering this, Patterson raises his eyebrows with that knowing Oliver Stone look that says, “Think about it.”
Sure, it’s worth thinking about. And while we’re all thinking, the D.C. government might want to think twice about where it’s putting its tax dollars.