Drug Treatment Court Attempts to Address Demand for Drugs, Including Heroin

Nov 21, 2014

Heroin busts have been in the headlines for the past month. Most notably, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office carried out the second largest heroin bust in the county’s history at the end of October. While busts like these address the supply of drugs, what is being done to reduce demand? The New Hanover County Drug Treatment Court focuses on permanently changing the behavior of addicts. 

When a person is charged with a drug-related crime—whether it be possession or property crimes committed to get money for drug purchases—they’re referred to Drug Treatment Court. Instead of going to prison, they can choose to undergo an intensive drug treatment program. If they fail to meet requirements—which include curfews, frequent drug tests, and substance abuse meetings—then they have to serve their prison sentence. Most choose the drug treatment.

Meredith entered into the voluntary program after police found her passed out in her car, carrying Xanax, marijuana, and heroin. They gave her two options: a 3 month stint in rehab or Drug Court:

"I thought, 'Well, I can do anything for three months. That’ll be a vacation from my life and then I’ll come back and do the same thing.’ So, they explained to me what Drug Court was, and I said, ‘That’s probably the best option. I need accountability for a long time in the real world, not somewhere else in this safe bubble because that’s not how it is when you get out of there.'"

Judge James Faison has presided over the New Hanover County's Drug Treatment Court for the past twelve years. He says that the court is designed to provide therapy with judicial enforcement—in other words, coercive treatment:

"The fact that they came in to Drug Court in the beginning is an indication that they do want the help because it is a voluntary program. But the person may lose the drive or may lose the motivation to want to go to treatment and comply with other things that will help them to maintain a drug-free lifestyle. So, when they run into that hurdle, then by them being under the jurisdiction of the courts, then we’re able to encourage them to get the treatment that they need because they know the consequence then is that they will receive a sanction. The sanction can range anywhere from community service to jail time."

Dr. Wendy Donlin, an associate professor at UNCW who studies behavioral treatments for addiction, says drug treatment courts are a good model:  

"Even when someone is addicted to a drug, they can still make choices of, 'I can do the drug or I can do something else.' The more appealing you make the alternatives and the worse you make the consequences for choosing to do the drug, the more likely you are to get people to choose to not do the drug. So I think that’s a fantastic way to approach the problem. There’s no perfect way, but that’s about the best that we have right now."

At the most recent Drug Court session, three participants in the program, including Meredith, graduated. It was a record for the county’s program. To graduate, the participant must be in the program for a full year. They must have been sober for at least six months, and this includes alcohol—even Nyquil is banned. They must be employed or in school, and they must complete all substance abuse treatment.   

The celebratory courtroom turned somber at times, with speakers acknowledging the struggle each graduate went through to reach this point. Meredith’s mother spoke during the ceremony:  

"I’m very proud of Meredith today. I said I wasn’t going to cry. If I could give advice to any family in here, I would say, do not ever cover for your kid. Don’t keep them from getting in the system. If you can get them arrested, do it, on the smallest thing, the first time you hear drugs, you get them busted. Because this saved her life, and I thank all of you for that. "

According to the Drug Court coordinator, 30-40% of participants successfully complete the program. She says it costs about 12 dollars per day for Drug Treatment Court participants. In North Carolina, the Department of Public Safety reported in 2011 that, on average, it costs  76 dollars per day for incarceration in prison. The coordinator says it’s difficult to gauge rates of recidivism in Drug Treatment Court graduates.