NOEL KING, HOST:
People who are addicted to illegal drugs are often desperate to try anything to break their addiction. More doctors are now offering proven therapies, but there are also plenty of scammers. These are people who make money off treatments that are unproven and sometimes even dangerous.
Jake Harper of Side Effects Public Media brought us this story from Indianapolis.
JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: Cheryl remembers going to pick up her son Jason at the addiction treatment center. When she walked in at the end of the day, Jason was lying on the floor, hallucinating.
CHERYL: He was reaching for things. And he was talking to Bill Gates. And he was talking to somebody else that I'm just certain he hasn't met.
HARPER: Cheryl took Jason to that clinic near Indianapolis because she was desperate. Jason was in his 30s, and he had used illegal drugs since he was a teenager. We're using just their first names because of concerns about Jason's employment. A doctor prescribed benzodiazepines for Jason's anxiety, and he started misusing them. Later, he added heroin and meth. Over the years, treatment programs hadn't helped. Jason always relapsed.
Then in 2016, Cheryl saw a local TV news story about a place called Emerald Neuro-Recover. The reporter said Emerald's treatment was proven to wipe drug cravings away.
CHERYL: So I called them. And they said, come in. And they sat and talked to me and him for, like, an hour and said, this is going to fix it. And I said, are you sure? And they said, it has never not worked for us. It works for everyone. How could I have fallen for that? But at the time, I really thought Jason - he was so bad, I thought he was going to die.
HARPER: Emerald offers something called NAD therapy. NAD is a coenzyme found in cells. But Emerald and other companies sometimes add amino acids or other nutritional supplements to create an IV cocktail. Dozens of companies say NAD therapy can treat addiction. Many of them claim it reduces or stops cravings for alcohol or illicit drugs in up to 90% of patients.
It comes at a cost, though. Emerald told Cheryl it would be $15,000 for two weeks of treatment. Cheryl remembers a staffer kept calling and calling until she finally agreed to pay. She took out an advance on her credit card and met the staffer at a gas station to hand it over.
CHERYL: When I gave her that check, I looked at her and said, this is to save my son's life.
HARPER: Days later, Cheryl found Jason on the floor at Emerald, hallucinating a conversation with Bill Gates. And she started to question the treatment he was getting.
CHERYL: They didn't want to do anything. I said, I think we need to call the hospital. He needs go to the hospital. And they said, no, no, we're not going to call an ambulance.
HARPER: But after Cheryl took Jason home, she decided to bring him to a hospital anyway, after he tried to throw himself through a wall. Emerald has called NAD therapy the crown jewel of detox and says it can take the brain back to a preaddiction state. But Dr. Emily Zarse, an addiction psychiatrist in Indianapolis, says there's a major problem with claims like these.
EMILY ZARSE: I don't know where those claims could come from, but it doesn't seem realistic to me.
HARPER: She says published research is lacking on NAD therapy for addiction.
ZARSE: There's no actual data on any of these things. So it seems to me like these companies are taking advantage of people.
HARPER: Even if there were substantial evidence, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved NAD therapy for addiction. FDA approval means the treatment has gone through rigorous human clinical trials. Without that approval, companies can't market a treatment for a specific disease. The FDA would not comment on specific cases. And there's no publicly available information showing that it has taken action against companies offering NAD therapy.
Meanwhile, patients like Jason have to judge treatment claims on their own. After Jason ended up in the hospital, he actually started having seizures; a common symptom of benzodiazepine withdrawal. Jason says Emerald took him off the benzos suddenly. That can sometimes be fatal.
JASON: I woke up, like, three or four days later. Basically, they let me leave the hospital. And then I went back to Emerald because I didn't know what else to do.
HARPER: Jason finished the treatment there, but he says it did nothing for his cravings. He relapsed.
JASON: One day out of the blue, I called somebody up, you know, and just was going do it one time and then - you know how that goes.
HARPER: Other patients also say NAD therapy didn't work for them. Some even appeared in positive news stories about Emerald, but later, they got arrested for drug and alcohol offenses.
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HARPER: I visited Emerald to ask about NAD therapy. The staff wouldn't connect me to a patient they treated successfully. And Emerald's medical director, Dr. John Humiston, says they don't routinely keep track of patients after they leave. Still, before I was asked to go, Humiston said NAD therapy works.
JOHN HUMISTON: People have a restoration of damaged functions.
HARPER: So you believe in it?
HUMISTON: Nothing's 100%, although for most people, it is 100%. That's been my experience.
HARPER: But it wasn't Jason's experience. Jason and Cheryl asked Emerald for their money back so they could pay off Jason's hospital bill. Instead, the company said he could have more treatments at a discount. Cheryl says she can't believe no one has stopped Emerald yet.
CHERYL: And you've got these people selling the snake oil, and they're getting away with it.
HARPER: Cheryl and Jason reached out to the Indiana attorney general and to the Federal Trade Commission but nothing came of it. They've given up on getting a refund.
For NPR News, I'm Jake Harper in Indianapolis.
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