Jay Dodd was travelling through Thailand in 2002 when he took the wrong drugs and died. Five years later, Dodd's mother has nearly completed the journey that began with her son's untimely death.
"He died in a drug-related death, and I was not able to do anything about that," Maggie Gold told the Georgia Straight. "He died of anaphylactic shock."
She continued, speaking softly in her Yaletown office: "You can't stop somebody from having anaphylactic shock, but there are so many other people out there who have got drug and alcohol challenges that maybe you can do something to help."
In 2002, Gold had been practising naturopathic medicine for 15 years. When her son died, she focused all her energy on researching addiction and eventually found something called amino-acid therapy.
On October 1 of this year, the Agora Regeneration Clinic opened in Vancouver. Amino-acid therapy has been offered in the United States and Mexico for more than a decade now, but Agora is the first private clinic to offer the therapy in Canada.
Gold said she did not believe that standard addiction therapies, cited in government reports with success rates averaging about 20 percent, were the best treatments available for drug and alcohol addiction. "I said, 'There has got to be another way; there has got to be something else'," she explained. "And that's when I went into the natural-medicine world to see what was there."
Agora's Cameron McIntyre, a naturopathic doctor, explained amino-acid therapy to the Straight. He said drug abuse damages neuroreceptors in the brain. That damage then makes a person more susceptible to addictive tendencies, reinforcing the cycle of drug abuse. What Agora does, McIntyre continued, is inject an amino-acid solution into the blood. The amino acids then repair damaged proteins in a drug user's brain, "basically giving the brain the chemicals that it is craving, but in a healthy way".
The result is a reestablishment of a healthy balance of neurochemistry. Withdrawal symptoms are reduced, and a patient's ability to make logical decisions about substance use is restored, McIntyre said.
Gold claimed that treatment centres across the U.S. that use amino-acid solutions similar to Agora's have a success rate of about 70 percent. However, because there has never been an independent study performed on the amino-acid therapy's impact on drug addiction, that number cannot be verified. "But even if it is half that, it's worth going through," she said. "If something does no harm, if it has anecdotal evidence that it works, why wouldn't we try it?"
When the Straight got Nicolas Huibers on his cellphone, he didn't sound like someone who had just emerged from five years of substance abuse. Laughing with his mother on their way home from Agora, Huibers was cautiously optimistic about his future.
"The last 10 days were good. I just kind of kept getting better and better," he said. "I've gone through a conventional residential treatment centre, and it nowhere near did what this kind of treatment did."
Huibers declined to comment on the details of his abuse problems but was happy to talk to the Straight about the treatment he had just undergone at Agora.
"The first couple of days, I was fairly tired," he began. "By day three and by day four, my mind was getting clearer; I was feeling much more healthy in the body and the mind." By days five and six, Huibers continued, cognitive abilities to reason and understand his addictive tendencies had noticeably improved.
Alongside the amino-acid therapy, with which Huibers was injected on a daily basis, Agora provided a string of complementary therapies designed to provide "the best possible option for all-natural drug and alcohol treatment", according to an Agora brochure.
On arrival at the clinic, Huibers said, he was given a complete naturopathic physical exam. During treatment, he spent time in an infrared sauna, underwent acupuncture, attended energy psychology sessions, and received massage therapy.
But the key to his treatment, Huibers claimed, was the amino-acid solution. "With the intravenous therapy, with getting the brain rebalanced, I noticed right away a clear and more accurate understanding of what I want, what I don't want, and [how] not to give in to those cravings," he said.
On his way home from 12 days at Agora, Huibers felt that he knew he did not want to be a substance abuser any more. "I feel like I've got my brain and body back," he said.
However, he acknowledged there was a tough road ahead, stressing that he planned to continue immediately with regular counselling sessions.
Huibers may be happy with Agora's approach to addiction so far. But when he spoke with the Straight he wasn't even a day out. What's more, he was only Agora's second patient.
Dr. Adam Frankel, assistant professor and Canada research chair in Drug Discovery at UBC, told the Straight that he was "highly skeptical" of Agora's treatment program.
"The problem is that they are not accounting for all of the other pathways that all of these natural amino acids can play into," he said. Frankel argued that when Agora injects the amino-acid tyrosine, for example, with the goal of producing a dopamine neurotransmitter, there is no guarantee that will actually happen. "That's not a good assumption to make, because tyrosine can be metabolized into a whole variety of different things in addition to dopamine," Frankel said.
Steve Sewell, program director for the National Organization for Recovering Alcoholics in the U.S., who, together with Dr. Dan Hepburn, designed the amino-acid solution used by Agora, claimed that there are ways of increasing the odds of a desired outcome. He said that his amino-acid solution includes vitamins and minerals that help direct the metabolization of amino acids into the desired proteins that will help repair the brain.
"We're basically giving the body what it needs to heal itself," he told the Straight in a phone interview from his office in Durango, Colorado. "I can't make any claims other than that."
Gold's plans for the future include starting a foundation in her son's name, which she hopes can raise money to pay for patients' treatment at Agora.
"We cannot solve the [Downtown] Eastside, because the Eastside is more than a drug and alcohol problem," she said. "But we can take people who want to get clean and run them through this program."