In a recent article in the Contra Costa Times, journalist Malaika Fraley writes that Thunder Road Adolescent Treatment Center in Oakland is scrambling to stay open. She reports that TR’s longtime operator, Summit Medical Center, has been planning to sever ties with the program for two years, due to annual running costs of the residential drug rehab and plus facility in excess of $6 million, yearly deficits of $800,000, and declining admissions. Well, I think that conversation’s been happening for much longer, actually.
I worked at Thunder Road for fifteen years, between 1996 and 2011. I chronicled my time, what I observed, what I think treatment for substance abuse and teens entails, both from a research and personal perspective, in a book I published in 2013, entitled Working Through Rehab. Among other things, I remember that threats to the program’s viability started around 2004, and continued periodically thereafter. When I left TR in 2011, I’d worked most clinical positions in the program, seen various changes to program structure, tweaks of philosophy and methods, etcetera, and held the view that TR had been “scrambling” for some time. I am sympathetic to its latest bid for survival, and for the prospect of retaining “the only program of its kind” for Bay Area, and especially East Bay, Alameda residents.
But what is the meaning of this latest, perhaps most threatening of crises? If the community wants drug treatment for youth; if it believes that drug abuse, gang violence, physical and sexual abuse, child abandonment, are ills damaging the community, where is the ongoing support for programs like Thunder Road? Why were admissions declining? Where is the city leadership, the rally of business sponsorship that would spare a thirty year old institution from this desperate position? At the risk of disparaging efforts that may yet come to fruition, I wonder if there is enough conviction to save Thunder Road; if there exists a muted rejection of drug treatment in the community as a whole.
An overview survey from 2014 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reveals some interesting trends. Use of illicit drugs has generally declined over the past two decades: decreasing use of alcohol, cigarettes, the misuse of prescription pain relievers; stable rates of marijuana use among teens, but perhaps more importantly, changing attitudes about the perceived risk of harm associated with marijuana use. 36% of adolescents say that regular use puts users at great risk compared to 52% just five years ago. In other words, a majority of teens no longer think marijuana use is significantly harmful, which begs the question: what becomes the pretext for treatment, especially a residential admission, if this attitude prevails? Aundrea Brown, who runs Alameda County’s public defender’s juvenile division, states that Thunder Road is an essential placement alternative to juvenile hall (according to the Times article). The Save Thunder Road petition site says something similar. But I suspect many citizens of Alameda, the county that TR now dominantly serves, might reject the implied dichotomy. They’d surely rebut that neither alternative should exist; that a society moving towards legalization of currently illicit drugs, and that deems K2/spice, painkillers, e-cigarettes (according to NIDA, the only major substance whose use is on the rise) as effective, acceptable mood-altering substances, should leave well enough alone.
I hope the county is able to broker financing for a provider (or coalition of providers) to take over care of Thunder Road from Sutter. On balance, I believe what the program brings is a valuable service to the community, though it undoubtedly needs reform. But a broader question needs to be aimed at the community, in schools, churches, within board meetings and without: what do you really want to do about drug use?