Sobriety in a Bottle

Is Prometa the greatest innovation in addiction treatment history or 21st-century snake oil?

He says that he used to be a rising research star at UCLA but that his association with Hythiam and Prometa has made him an outcast in the research community. He admits he's been fired from places, passed over for grants, and, worst of all, called a sellout.

But he gets most worked up when people suggest that Hythiam should have waited to treat patients until after clinical studies were published.

Torrington talks about doing research on Suboxone to treat heroin addiction before the drug was FDA-approved. But when the study was over, Torrington had to take his patients off the medication. Today, Suboxone is widely prescribed for several opiate addictions, essentially replacing methadone as the treatment of choice for heroin addicts.

Jody Briggs in the recovery room at Canterbury, where patients say they feel their brain chemistry change
Jody Briggs in the recovery room at Canterbury, where patients say they feel their brain chemistry change
Mike Briggs sits in the chair where he received his injections of flumazenil.
Mike Briggs sits in the chair where he received his injections of flumazenil.

"I had it in my office, and I couldn't give it to them because it wasn't FDA-approved. And at least one of them died of an overdose waiting for Suboxone to be FDA-approved. You know what? That makes me crazy, bro! I don't like to lose, man. I'm a winner. And I don't like it when my patients die!"

The only problem with Prometa right now, he says, is that it's too expensive and too hard to get. "Yes, it's expensive right now, but so were airbags. Airbags started on the SL [Mercedes]. Then the S [Mercedes]. Then the Porsches. Then the BMWs and the Saabs and the Volvos. And then nine years later, they were standard equipment on every car sold in the United States. Essentially, we're in year two."

Hythiam, he admits, alienated the addiction community early on. "The original marketing people, who have all been fired, were idiots," he says. "They didn't understand addiction. They had a billboard in L.A. that said 'Addiction is biologic; treatment is medical.' I wanted to scream. I did scream! Addiction is biologic, psychologic, social, spiritual, and nutritional. The treatment has to be biologic, psychologic, social, spiritual, and nutritional. 'We didn't have room for that,' they said. 'You're idiots,' I said."

Torrington believes the doctors who haven't used this treatment might not approve because it takes away from their business model. "There's a lot of repeat business in addiction," he says. "Hythiam's trying to capitalize too, but people have ponied up $150 million in venture capital and publicly traded money to try and believe in this idea and perpetuate it.

"This is America, bro. The only thing in this country that works is commerce. I don't believe in the government. I don't think they can do anything right. The media? Sorry, bro, but it seems like it's controlled by special interests. The only thing that really works is companies. Starbucks works. Everybody's addicted to caffeine."

Many of Prometa's staunchest detractors are receiving millions of dollars in federal grant money to study treatments for meth addiction, and Hythiam's approach cuts into their business, Torrington says. Dr. Rawson of UCLA, the one who urged political officials in California not to spend precious taxpayer money on treatments like Prometa, has at least $20 million in grant money to study the treatments for meth, according to NIDA.

"How do you think [Rawson] feels about slimy Terren Peizer coming up with the answer to methamphetamine?" Torrington asks. "I understand the need for data, but that dude just submitted grants to study Wellbutrin for methamphetamine dependence. I mean, Fuck you, dude! Wellbutrin doesn't work!"

He says he believes LeGarda will get the Nobel Prize. "Every time I see him, I beg him to invite me to Stockholm when he goes."

If the current studies get published and show statistically significant differences between patients who took Prometa drugs and patients who received the placebo — which Torrington says will absolutely happen — it could become unethical to withhold the treatment from anyone.

"Addiction is our biggest problem," Torrington says. "Our jails are full of addicts. Our health-care system is clogged with people suffering from addiction. We're not treating them effectively.

"We can have a revolution in addiction medicine that will be the single greatest victory in the history of medicine. We can't beat cancer, but we can beat people dying from the self-administration of drugs against their will."

The people pushing Prometa are the source of the negative vibe surrounding it, says Ben Brafman, who owns Destination Hope, an inpatient program in Fort Lauderdale geared toward men. "They come across as the stereotypical salesmen... promising a miraculous cure in some pill or shot. It has a bad reputation around the recovery community down here."

Brafman's program focuses on the issues addicted men struggle with: low self-esteem, anger management, family problems. "Nothing takes the place of good old-fashioned hard work and therapy," he says. "Medication might clear up a cloudy day and give you the opportunity to do what you need to do to get well. Maybe Prometa can do that, but I don't think it can do more than that."

He says the fact that Hythiam has been marketing Prometa without clinical research is "laughable." "I tell people to do their research for a reason," he says.

Prometa came under heavy fire in Pierce County, Washington, near Seattle, when county commissioners agreed to fund a $400,000 trial program, treating methamphetamine addicts in family court or felony drug court.

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