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It was just over a year ago that former Toronto mayor Rob Ford disappeared into a Muskoka addiction treatment centre for help with drug and alcohol abuse.

"I went away, dealt with the issue head-on, came back stronger, better, clearer," Ford told a trade show audience last September following his treatment.

For Ford, and legions of others struggling with addiction, rehab is seen as a panacea. It's all too tempting to assume that rehab centres can turn peoples' lives around, and any slip-up or relapse can be fixed with another stay in treatment.

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The vast array of addiction treatment centres in Canada are happy to perpetuate that myth. Many treatment facility websites boast success rates of 90 per cent or more and feature photos of peaceful lakeside vistas or outdoor oases.

Looks can be deceiving.

As many individuals and families have learned the hard way, addiction treatment programs are not created equal. There are no mandatory regulations or provincial standards that facilities or their employees must adhere to; it is a buyer beware environment.

A few recent examples highlight why this is a problem. Earlier this month, Ontario Provincial Police charged two men after they pretended to be doctors at the Addiction Canada Recovery Centre in Caledon, Ont., even though neither is licensed to practise medicine in the province. In addition to the charges, the facility itself has not been accredited by a respected institution. On its website, the treatment centre says it is accredited by the World Accreditation Addiction Treatment Mark of Excellence; however, WAATME is an online service promising to accredit anyone who can complete an online course on overprescribing medication to seniors, declare he isn't linked to a drug company and is willing to send them as much as $999 (U.S.) in fees. In case the red flags aren't clear enough, consider that any respectable accreditation program will demand, at the very minimum, an on-site visit and inspection.

In April, CBC featured a story about several British Columbia women who paid the Women Into Healing facility in Maple Ridge, B.C., nearly $20,000 each and said the centre failed to deliver on many promises. The women say they were kicked out of the program, without a refund, after raising concerns (claims the centre has denied). Women Into Healing has no accreditation, according to an employee, which is disturbingly common among treatment facilities.

Even the treatment facility Ford attended, GreeneStone Muskoka, a fancy, resort-like treatment facility, is not accredited, according to an employee who answered the phone last week.

What is to stop anyone from opening a treatment facility and charging vulnerable individuals tens of thousands of dollars based on misleading statements and false promises? Currently, very little. Provincially funded treatment programs are few and far between, with lengthy waiting lists. And the standards for private programs just aren't there.

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Many would like that to change. The Canadian Addiction Counsellors Certification Federation is pushing for mandatory regulation of addiction counsellors. President Tom Gabriel said in an interview that creating a standard for counsellors, as there are for other health professionals, can protect vulnerable individuals by creating a level playing field for anyone who wants to provide treatment.

Dr. Colleen Dell, addiction research chair at the University of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Dale Wiebe, education co-ordinator for addiction medicine at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, say it's time to focus on ensuring high-quality accreditation of facilities that offer treatment.

"I think accreditation is a really good start," Dell said.

There can be a robust debate over what is the best approach to improving the current Wild West state of addiction treatment centres.

Until something changes, however, those who live with addiction will suffer because unqualified counsellors or questionable programs will continue to operate. It's easy to say that people should do their homework before giving thousands of dollars to a facility, but those decisions are often made during a crisis, when time and clarity of mind are in extremely short supply.

As long as addiction exists, treatment programs will continue to proliferate, and profit, from individuals in extremely vulnerable circumstances. If anything, the rising rates of prescription drug abuse means those programs are more in demand than ever before.

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It's easy to look away from this issue. People addicted to drugs, alcohol or other substances are often stigmatized and live in the shadows. But addiction affects more than one in 10 Canadians, according to a 2007 report from CAMH. We need to shine a light on this problem and realize that "rehab" isn't a one-stop solution. It's time to level the playing field.

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