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Breaking the cycle: From cops to rehab, Snoqualmie Valley's drug dependents seek help in escaping narcotics’ costly grip

Raechel Femling meets with Dr. Alan Johnson at Snoqualmie Ridge Medical Clinic. Femling, who is one of dozens of patients working with Johnson to beat opiate addiction, is getting her life back after drug dependency.  - Carol Ladwig / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Raechel Femling meets with Dr. Alan Johnson at Snoqualmie Ridge Medical Clinic. Femling, who is one of dozens of patients working with Johnson to beat opiate addiction, is getting her life back after drug dependency.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig / Snoqualmie Valley Record

It took only minutes for the thief to smash the windows of five cars, grab what he could and disappear.

The burglary happened in broad daylight July 18 at Snoqualmie’s  Point Park trailhead

The victims on the trail were less than 100 feet away, but couldn’t hear the sound of shattering safety glass. The thief probably knew he wouldn’t be caught in the act.

Police call them crimes of opportunity. The vehicle prowls and smash-and-grabs that happen more and more often in the Snoqualmie Valley have increased with the population, but are often done by out-of-towners who trade their ill-gotten gains for narcotics.

“A lot of it is tied to the drug problem,”  said Sgt. Robert Keeton of the Snoqualmie Police Department. “They take it, and they hock it for the money to buy drugs.”

Experts don’t agree on the specific relationship between drug use and criminal activity—some say 50 percent of all crimes are drug-related, others say 90 percent—but they agree that there is a connection. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that more than half of all people arrested in the United States test positive for illegal drug use.

In Washington, the number of people in prison for drug offenses dropped from 23 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2004, but the overall number of people sent to prison for drug offenses in the state is steady at about 30 percent. Another 28 percent of admissions are for property crimes, mainly associated with drug addiction or abuse.

Eliminating or reducing drug use doesn’t necessarily follow from eliminating or reducing a thief’s opportunity, but it’s a start.

“Ultimately, we can’t do this job alone,” says Keeton.

There are three simple ways residents can prevent drug abuse in this community: Keep cars and homes secured, drop off unused prescription drugs at the police station and lock up any prescription medicines you do use. But a real solution is more complicated.

Support and rehab

The Upper Valley is home to two outpatient rehabilitation programs, a medical maintenance program and many support groups focused on helping drug-dependent residents beat their addictions. It also has several law enforcement agencies who share a goal of getting users into programs that could help them.

“We try to give people options to get out of it,” says Mark Toner, North Bend’s police chief. “I can’t finance anybody, obviously, but I can refer.”

He talks with the users brought into his station, and learns about their circumstances—insurance coverage, family support, finances—so that he can refer them to the right kind of help.

“I tell people, ‘I am arresting you and taking you to jail, and charging you with this, so the judge will mandate you to get better,’” Toner said. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to, but at least it forces them down a road that opens doors that they’re not going to be able to take on their own.”

Some users force themselves down that road, he says, by informing on their own dealers to cut off their access to more drugs.

Quitting is only half the battle. The other half is staying off the drug, and for that, there are support groups like Celebrate Recovery, which has a presence in several local churches. At Snoqualmie Valley Alliance, Celebrate Recovery has been operating for nine years, always free to participants. Will Naber, Celebrate Recovery coordinator, estimates that about half of the 50 people who attend meetings weekly are there for addiction problems, including himself. The group is open to anyone struggling with ongoing problems, from anger to sexual addiction, co-dependence and drugs.

“Basically it’s for people that are hurting, whatever they’ve got going on,” said Naber.

Celebrate Recovery is an international,  faith-based program, but does not require church membership to join, Naber says.

Each Friday, Celebrate Recovery members meet for dinner at SVA, followed by a group session of readings, worship music and testimonials. The large group then breaks into men’s and women’s groups focused on different issues, but strictly for support.

That kind of support, especially in the group setting, is a vital component of the formal rehab programs available in the Valley.

“The group process is just an incredible thing,” said Betsy Gudz, a Friends of Youth chemical dependence counselor in Snoqualmie. “One of their peers says ‘you know I was thinking about this,’ and it opens up a whole different conversation.When they can hear from somebody, ‘I’m scared too,’ that’s really powerful.”

Gudz is one of six counselors, each working with 20 to 30 people, ages 11 to 21, in the Friends of Youth intensive outpatient drug rehab program. They work with youth both in weekly group sessions, divided by age, and individual counseling sessions for more sensitive issues.

Since she’s raised her own six children in the Valley, Gudz feels she has a valuable perspective, especially when clients come to her and say they’re bored, there’s nothing to do around here. Boredom is one of the main reasons teens say they chose to try drugs in the first place, but because of her years here, Gudz can suggest any number of things to match her clients’ interests.

“I will talk to anybody who wants to, I will help in any way that I can,” said Gudz, who is always ready to celebrate a win. She is concerned, though, about trends she’s seeing among local youth.

“It used to be for very many years that the heroin and extreme opiate use was confined to the 20 and up group, but now it’s coming to the younger ages,” she said, “and we’re getting a resurgence in methamphetamine use.”

Tribe’s clinic

Older users seeking help can find it in North Bend, at the Raging River Recovery Center. The Snoqualmie Tribe-run clinic provides intensive outpatient care three days a week, but does not require patients to belong to the Tribe. In fact, as Christa McAllister, a chemical dependence counselor trainee at the center, told a well-attended Snoqualmie Valley Hospital lunch-and-learn audience in July, “Most of them are from the community.... The Snoqualmie Tribe made a decision to work with everybody.”

The program takes a holistic approach to healing people with addictions, and models treatment on the Native American Medicine Wheel, which follows the four seasons. Patients start in the spring, with the physical challenges of addiction, then move to summer and the social and cultural aspects.

“This is intensive outpatient, so people can keep their families and their jobs,” McAllister said. But often, people will need to leave enabling friends behind, so “by the time treatment goes away, they have a support system that’s healthy.”

By autumn, the third step on the Medicine Wheel, patients are dealing with the mental and emotional issues that led them into drug abuse. These are all different, according to the individual, but McAllister guesses that greater than 80 percent of patients had some sort of abuse in their pasts. Finally in winter, patients tackle the spiritual aspects of their recovery, and reach forgiveness.

Since the Snoqualmie Tribe operates the center, it can order tribe members into a program there, but all other patients come on a voluntary basis. Like the Friends of Youth program, insurance might cover some of the costs, and the program will accommodate people’s financial situations.

“We’ve never turned anybody away,” McAllister said.

Opiate intervention

For two years now, Dr. Alan Johnson of the Snoqualmie Ridge Medical Clinic has been conducting a medical maintenance program for opiate addicts on a volunteer basis only. He prescribes mild opiates to addicts who want to quit.

It’s a program similar to methadone treatment, but less restrictive and potentially, more effective.

Suboxone, the drug Johnson prescribes, is an opiate like methadone, but where methadone patients can get only one dose each day, Johnson’s patients can have a month’s supply. Suboxone works differently from methadone, making it less likely to be sold or exchanged for heroin, as methadone used to be.

Suboxone binds tightly to the receptors in the brain that respond to opiates.

“It turns them on only four-tenths of the way, limited,” Johnson said. “And it keeps everything else out.”

No other opiates can affect the brain while the suboxone is in the system, so addicts taking the right dose of it “are absolutely sane every hour of the day, and they are not stoned, because they’ve developed enough tolerance that that 40 percent is just normal,” Johnson said.

His is the only suboxone program in the state, so he sees patients from Chehalis and Tri-Cities, as well as from the Valley.

He excitedly talks about what the program has done for his patients.

“They literally can hold a job, get dressed, not get depressed, lose their anxiety and insomnia, and become productive members of society, as long as they’re taking this,” he says.

Because of the federal laws governing the drug, he is limited to seeing 100 patients for this drug, and he must be their primary doctor, as well. He sees each patient monthly to test their blood or urine for drug use, and to discuss their recovery. Patients must be on time, and must be free of all other drugs to get another prescription. If they have multiple lapses, they’re dropped from the program. Most have stayed with the program with almost no issues.

“Then somewhere down the road, somewhere between 6 months and two years-ish, they look back and say ‘I don’t think I’m an addict any more. I haven’t seen those people, I don’t think I’d go back to it.’” says Johnson.

One such patient is Raechel Femling. Now 30, Femling had been using one drug or another since she was 14, including prescription pain killers that she blames a previous doctor for prescribing to her. That doctor, she said, seemed not to know that she was abusing the drugs, and frequently prescribed her more, for the smallest complaint.

Femling, a North Bend resident and mother of two, decided to switch to Dr. Johnson, when she learned about the suboxone program. She’s been seeing him for two years, and both of them feel she is ready to graduate from the program. Not only is she basically free of the drug, she has begun to follow her dreams again.

“I always wanted to work in the medical field,” she said, but dropping out of high school with only two credits to go ended that dream, for a while. At age 26, though, she went back to Two Rivers School and finished her coursework to earn her high school diploma. Since starting on suboxone, she’s started online college classes and will soon graduate with a certificate in medical billing. It’s not her dream job of X-ray technician, but this, too, is a start.

Femling and her family hope her story can help others, if someone else follows her example. Johnson clearly does, too

“Dr. Johnson is always telling me how proud he is, because he says I’m his success story,” Femling said.

Looking back, “I kind of wish I never even tried any drugs,” she said. “But it’s a learning process and you can’t change the past.”

• See related story: Find resources to help break addiction.

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