WESTMINSTER - The eight pairs of ears in the lounge of the Shoemaker Detoxification Center have heard it a thousand times: Drugs and alcohol are bad for you.
But these eight people seem to listen more closely with acupuncture pins stuck in their ears.
That's how Bruce Marshall uses one ancient medicine to open up patients to another age-old therapy -- common sense.
Patients say Marshall's approach helps them realize how much damage they had been inflicting on their bodies.
"(Acupuncture) more or less opens your mind to a lot of thinking.
The first time I tried it, I remember feeling very relaxed," said Vince DePaul, a 36-year-old musician from Owings Mills who was treated at the Shoemaker Center.
Drugs are poison, Marshall, a registered acupuncturist, tells his patients. He brings literature to prove it.
"If you're going to know how your car works, or how your oven works, you should at least know how your body works," Marshall tells them.
The filament-thin acupuncture pins stimulate the electricity that exists in the body, which helps organs recover from drug and alcohol damage, Marshall said. But he warns patients to extricate themselves from the atmosphere of drugs and alcohol, even if it means dumping friends who encourage their habits; they're not really friends.
When describing the effect of an acupuncture treatment, patients at Shoemaker almost always first mention relaxation and a tingling energy flowing through their bodies. Some say the treatment has helped the itching, nausea, anxiety and paranoia they felt other times they tried to quit.
Although DePaul completed his detoxification a month ago, he still comes back for treatments three times a week with Marshall. He plans to taper the treatments to once a week for a total of 20 treatments.
"I just have a whole different outlook. I think acupuncture made me think about issues and take care of myself," he said.
A self-described binge-user of cocaine and alcohol for half his life, DePaul said his craving disappeared for the first time after he started acupuncture. As a musician, he often finds himself at bars and parties, surrounded by opportunities to drink and take drugs. But he doesn't.
Since early September, Marshall has come to Shoemaker on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. The center is run by the Carroll County Department of Health. Addictions Bureau Chief Jo Riley-Kauer called Marshall this summer while looking for non-drug therapies for detoxification -- the first stage of an addict's recovery from drugs and alcohol.
She said she heard about Marshall through Michael Stang, a physician and chief of emergency medicine at Carroll County General Hospital. Stang knew of Marshall's work with the Baltimore City Department of Health in a similar project that started in January. Both programs are paid for and approved by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said Janet Neslen, health officer for Carroll County and a pediatrician.
The Carroll Department of Health pays Marshall less than $10 per patient per treatment. Riley-Kauer said the program is cost-efficient because Marshall can treat up to 15 patients at a time.
A few patients are nervous about having pins stuck in their ears and instead choose to watch and participate in the discussion. For patients who are willing, Marshall inserts five stainless steel pins into key points on their ear. The pins are about the length of a sewing needle but hardly thicker than a human hair.
Three of the points correspond to organs often damaged by addiction -- the lungs, liver and kidneys. Another stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which calms the body. The fifth point is called the "life gate" because it relaxes the body and opens the mind, Marshall and his patients said.
After inserting the pins into patients' ears -- which takes about three to five minutes for each patient -- Marshall leads an hourlong discussion about the damage done by drugs, the lack of any quality control and the danger that a "pure" dose of cocaine or crack could kill them on the spot.
Marshall, a New Jersey native, has studied Chinese medicine at Samra University in Los Angeles and at HD Iang University in the People's Republic of China.
He also served an apprenticeship at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx borough of New York, which has been using acupuncture in detoxification programs for 15 years.
Marshall said the program at Shoemaker complements the traditional medical program in place there, he said. But Riley-Kauer said the center tries as much as possible to avoid using medication -- more drugs -- to treat addiction.
"It's not another chemical you're putting in your body," said Barbara, 27, of acupuncture. She, like most of the other patients, asked that only her first name be used.
"I'd see that Bud on TV and my mouth started watering, and I would think, 'Boy, I'd like to have a cold one right now,' " she said. But since acupuncture, "I've been watching the baseball games, and the beer commercials don't even faze me."