In 1989, he opened Jerusalem House, a 15-bed treatment center for addicts, where he began to develop "The Scher Method" of painless drug detoxification.
Jerusalem House received a great deal of press in Israel at the time, most of it overwhelmingly positive. In December of 1989, however, a journalist working undercover for the local weekly Yerushalayim accused Scher of, among other things, using dangerous drugs, ignoring his patients and not feeding them properly?in short, of exploiting the desperate.
These days Dr. Scher says he doesn't remember the article, and refers to the charges as "nonsense."
"I don't think that's very fair. I had a reputation for many years as being very responsible when it came to my patients."
Be that as it may, it didn't affect Jerusalem House at all, which operated until 1996, when Dr. Scher returned to New York, where he established Detox N.Y.C.?a new, smaller clinic where he would continue using the methods he developed in Israel.
"I tried to start it, more or less, when I came back," he says of the clinic. "And then I got fairly sick." Dr. Scher suffered repeated bouts of pneumonia, as well as a mild heart attack and stroke, which laid him fairly low for the next couple years. "I intermittently pursued it when I was well enough. It was fully operational, more or less, from the beginning, in that we were trying to get patients and trying to treat them... I can tell you that the program is really quite effective?that's the key thing."
The program he developed seems fairly simple. In a letter, Dr. Scher described it as "the fastest and most comfortable" detox program ever, which also, as it happens, "provides the best results."
It works like this: When you check in to Detox N.Y.C., Dr. Scher gives you a series of tranquilizers, antidepressants and anti-anxiety agents, as well as medication to calm the stomach and other drugs to calm the brain. What he's done, in essence, is catalogued all the symptoms that result from heroin withdrawal, and provided something to treat each symptom individually.
The patient sleeps for an entire day at the clinic and then is sent home, with the understanding that he will return to the clinic two times a week for the next four weeks to receive more such medications, along with psychiatric counseling. After a month or so, the patient is clean of the drug, never having felt any withdrawal symptoms, no side effects and no after-effects. Easy as pie.
After using this procedure for the past decade, Dr. Scher claims a 90-percent success rate.
Though it sounds very quick and easy, Scher emphasizes that his procedure is in no way related to the "Rapid Detox" programs?the so-called "Four Hour Detox"?you see advertised in the backs of newspapers.
"It's unbelievable. It's absurd. It's quite bad," he says of rapid detoxification. "The people who are involved with that should know?if you push somebody into a rapid, acute detoxification, and then you don't give them any kind of a treatment...the result is nausea, vomiting. They can get pneumonia or swallow their own vomit. They put them in diapers because they know they're going to have massive diarrhea. It's a mess, and then they're left in the same state for the next two weeks. That's why so many of them will pretty quickly go right back to drugs. That's the only comfort they know. I just don't understand how doctors, professionals, can repeatedly do a procedure that has such catastrophic effects on the patients."
And that's where, he claims, the Scher Method differs.
"I'll tell you straight out?there is no approach that compares to mine. I know that sounds boastful, and maybe it is, but I'm telling you a fact. Number one, they are not in acute withdrawal at any point... [T]he approach that I've taken is to provide them with various medications which block the development of any of the withdrawal phenomena, so they don't get them."
He vehemently denies that there's any danger in introducing all these drugs into an addict?unlike rapid detox, the shock of which has been known to kill patients. He denies also that there's any chance of becoming subsequently addicted to the treatment itself.
The cost for the entire procedure is $4000?hefty, but still cheaper than many of the other treatments currently available.
"It's not only cheaper, it's better," Dr. Scher says. "There have never been any problems." In fact, he told me, using this method in Israel, he's treated epileptics, diabetics, people with liver problems and pregnant women?all successfully.
"Since I've been here, I've walked around to a number of places where detoxification is done, and I saw some of the procedures and some of the doctors, and I hear what they're doing. They're giving them absurd drugs like Narcan?it's almost like giving them nothing to detoxify with and then pretending you're putting a bandage on afterwards. It's totally ineffective." Which is one of the main reasons, he says, these treatments so rarely work. "It's so painful and difficult to go through the process in any form that most of them know about, that they don't want to be bothered?they're more comfortable where they are."
He says that the nature of his procedure even shocks his patients. "They're expecting the opposite. But I tell them it's not like the other programs, and they don't believe it."
Well, that much is true. I spoke to a couple of people?let's just say people who would know about such things?and described the Scher Method to them. Some simply snorted in derision. Some laughed, asking, "So he really thinks that'll work? Putting me to sleep for a day?"
Ann Ardolino, who's been through far too many detox programs, all of them thus far unsuccessful, was concerned that it sounded?despite Dr. Scher's claims?too much like rapid detox, which she describes as "sort of like exiting the building from the tenth floor instead of going down to the lobby."
"It sounds like a lot of hooey to me, but a reasonable man is supposed to be able to consider all possibilities, and I'm willing to consider," she says. "It's just when people start charging these exorbitant fees." The people who end up paying, she said, "are usually the distraught and unsophisticated parents who are most vulnerable and at their wits' end and grabbing at straws. I mean, why does it have to cost four-fucking-thousand dollars? That's a lot of money for a destitute addict to come up with."
Dr. Scher, despite the ease and success of his program, only accepts one or two patients a week. I asked him why that was.
"It hasn't been an enormous number [of patients treated here], nor have I wanted it to be an enormous number. It's not a matter of getting rich in any fashion, it's a matter of providing a service and doing it with a limited number of patients. If I can do one or two a week, that's quite enough."
But why not treat as many as he can? Why not treat hundreds?
"First of all," he said, "I'm not that ambitious. I used to be. When I had a 15-bed hospital in Israel, I was eager to do as many as necessary, because I thought we could do something." But he's older now, and he's been sick. "I'm just sort of getting back on my feet."