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'You’re killing my buzz': Controversial therapy that reduces effects of drinking comes to Alberta

The treatment, in theory, would help people who are addicted to alcohol drink in moderation

Lindsay Killam, Alavida's clinical program director, takes part in a video therapy session with a client.

Lara Shecter / Metro Web Upload

Lindsay Killam, Alavida's clinical program director, takes part in a video therapy session with a client.

A new form of alcoholism treatment therapy is making a splash in Alberta – but some abstinence advocates say it’s far from a magic pill.

Alavida is a company that combines naltrexone, a drug that inhibits the endorphins that provide euphoria, and video addiction therapy to help people control their drinking.

In essence, it takes what most people consider to be the fun part out of drinking—and, in theory, makes it possible for alcoholics to drink in small amounts.

The therapy has technically been available in Alberta since September, after having previously been launched in British Columbia and Ontario, but is now expanding with video conferencing available to patients in rural and isolated areas.

“We’ve already treated patients successfully – there was clearly a response and a demand that we saw in September,” said Dr. Diane Rothon, medical director and co-founder. “But now we feel we want to expand.”

Rothon, a former Chief Coroner for British Columbia, said video therapy has proven to be effective because patients can do it from the comfort of their own home.

People taking naltrexone will experience a slight buzz after a drink, but after a second or third drink, won’t feel any euphoria or loss of inhibitions. They will still experience some of the unpleasant effects of alcohol, such as loss of coordination or slurred speech.

The idea is that combined with the video therapy, people will gradually lose their desire to drink excessively. Rothon said the therapy can be helpful for people who want to quit alcohol completely, but is particularly aimed at those who can’t control their drinking.

According to Rothon, people see a less than 30 per cent success rate in eventually quitting alcohol when using naltrexone alone. Combine that with their video therapy and it goes to 80 per cent.

“They’re interested in normalizing their relationship with alcohol,” Rothon said. “A lot of patients say to me you’re killing my buzz … but look what you’re gaining in terms of sociability.”

But not everyone is sold on the new therapy.

David Pavlus, executive director of Last Door Recovery Society, a nationwide treatment centre, cautions that for some alcoholics, any amount of alcohol is a bad idea.

“When you look at someone who’s homeless and has been through trauma and pain, teaching that person to drink successfully is probably not going to work,” he said.

Shannon Towson, with Calgary’s Edgewood Health Network, takes an even stronger stand, saying substance use disorder is a deep-rooted illness that cannot be addressed with controlled drinking.

“We know once an alcoholic or addict flips that switch, that pleasure pathway towards addiction, we don’t see any modicum of success in terms of long-term recovery as well as abstinence from use of drugs,” she said.

“When people have come over to the side of the spectrum of substance use disorder, they cannot control or manage or drinking.”

But Rothon acknowledges that many people drink because of deep-rooted trauma, and says that’s why the video therapy is such an important part of their program.

“Those trauma-based illnesses need to be addressed, or they’ll simply shift to a different coping mechanism,” she said.

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