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Lois M. Collins: Quick consequence, intervention for drug use best hope for future lives

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the specialized courts exist to tackle addictions without throwing away lives that can be repaired. They work by diverting eligible drug addicts out of the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.

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In the '70s, the young man went to prison for possession of marijuana and amphetamines. Like a lot of kids, he was a dabbler and a fool, cocky and sure nothing would happen to him — a weekend partier who would have said he was just having fun.

Our families were close so I got to see what did happen to him. He left prison a couple of years later as an ex-con with a criminal record that seriously wounded his future. He had a lot to overcome and I don't think he ever quite got back on track.

A couple of decades ago, a dentist I really loved disappeared from practice, leaving me hunting for someone with his skills and compassion. I was told he’d had surgery and became addicted to the pain pills he was given to help him recuperate. I hope he overcame it.

One of the most beloved of all my childhood pals began using drugs and alcohol in high school. Many, many years later he was diagnosed with a serious mental illness. As an adult I learned that he was probably, without knowing it, self-medicating to quell the chaos in his mind.

I thought of all three when I first heard of drug courts.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the specialized courts exist to tackle addictions without throwing away lives that can be repaired. They work by diverting eligible drug addicts out of the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.

It only works if the intervention is swift, the supervision close and the treatment intensive enough to help someone walk away from drug use. As David Bornstein of the New York Times and others have pointed out, the quick part is key because being arrested is a bucket of ice water applied firmly to one’s face. It gets someone’s attention at a time when the individual is probably the most frightened and willing to change. At that stage, intervention can be a ticket back to an on-course life.

It’s also an opportunity to find out that someone is, like my dear friend, suffering from a major mental illness that demands attention. He didn’t get that diagnosis for several years, but instead continued to get into scrapes that were increasingly serious until he was mired within the criminal justice system.

Diversion into treatment is not intended for everyone. It’s not built to help the neighborhood drug dealer or the career criminal. Violent offenders are seldom, if ever, considered. According to NADCP, where offenses involve victims, the victims must consent and restitution is usually required.

Some Americans wrestle with the concept of “giving” a drug user a break. After all, an individual chooses to take drugs. It’s a self-inflicted wound. I get that. But I also know that the wound spills over to other lives that didn’t inflict it upon themselves: the heartbroken parents, children who have been neglected and perhaps abused, crime victims, bosses who must deal with an impaired worker and so many more.

I also doubt that anyone sets out to torpedo themselves with drugs. Kids foolishly experiment, not understanding the consequences. And prescriptions may lead to addictions that weren’t foreseen.

The bottom line, for me, is very basic. Regardless of how it happened or who is to blame, if we can end a cycle of lives in disrepair, prevent crime, save money, restore sanity and reunite families, why wouldn’t we choose to do that?

Any parent knows that the time to curtail a kid’s problem behavior is the moment you spot it. As a taxpayer, I’d rather pay for treatment than house someone in a school for crime. I’d rather reunite families and build taxpayers than subsidize the broken pieces left behind. I always prefer the option that offers some hope.

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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