My Harrowing Year in the Drug Court System That Biden Wants to Expand

    As we await the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, many of us are welcoming the possibility of a more compassionate approach towards people who use drugs. The Trump administration set the bar so low that overall, this will probably happen. Yet while Biden—a longtime architect and champion of the drug war—has moved on some issues, his arrival represents no new drug-policy dawn.

    The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice promises to “reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country,” to “root out the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system,” and to foster a system “focused on redemption and rehabilitation.”

    But one of the ways that the Biden administration plans to reduce incarceration with a “redemption and rehabilitation” focus is by funding increased use of drug courts and coerced addiction treatment—policies that respect neither human rights nor scientific evidence, as Filter has reported.

    Some people who are otherwise facing incarceration may experience drug courts and mandatory treatment as a second chance. For many more of us—particularly those of us who don’t wish to stop using drugs—it’s just another violation of our autonomy, and one that can still leave us behind bars.


    My “Choice” to Go to Drug Court

    A few years ago, I went through a series of drug-related felony and misdemeanor arrests. The last of them was for being in possession of cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA, with no additional charges. According to the arrest documents, if found guilty, I would serve a maximum sentence of six years in state prison.

    I was then given the “choice” of either being prosecuted and punished for drug possession, or admitting my guilt and joining the drug court program.

    Assuming my adherence to the strict requirements, I was told, the program would last a minimum of 12 months. If successful, the case would be nolle prosequi; the charges would be dismissed and I would receive no conviction.

    Not wanting to go to prison and realizing I might have a problem with my use, I joined the drug court program and attended an initial hearing.

    As required, I agreed there to undergo urine drug tests three times a week, and to attend multiple 12-step meetings a week, plus therapeutic groups during the week and on Saturday mornings.

    At those courthouse meetings, I would be required to give detailed progress reports on my recovery from “hallucinogen abuse disorder.”

    I would also meet with the judge about once a month. At those courthouse meetings, I would be required to give detailed progress reports on my recovery from the “hallucinogen abuse disorder” with which the program diagnosed me, with reference to my Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous attendance.

    I didn’t know it at the time, but alternatives to 12-step meetings exist. I was not offered any other option.


    A Program Dominated by the 12 Steps

    Over the first few months, I was on a drive to change my life, and I experienced a genuine desire to achieve sobriety—separate from my awareness that if I wanted to avoid incarceration, my only option was to succeed in the program. I did exactly what I was told to do.

    I gave it a shot, I really did. I went to all my required meetings and sincerely tried to subscribe to the 12-step philosophy. I made friends in the rooms, as 12-step enthusiasts call it, and I disconnected myself from everyone I knew who used drugs—basically everyone I knew, apart from family.

    For quite some time, I truly believed that I was an “addict.” I was actively completing all of my drug court program requirements, including working with a 12-step sponsor. As suggested, I found a sponsor with over 20 years of “clean time.” Sponsors are often informally ranked on how long they’ve abstained from using drugs—apart from caffeine and nicotine, of course—and are considered experts based on their lack of drug use.

    While in the drug court program, I was also denied any prescription for controlled substances, such as Adderall or Xanax, to manage my mental health symptoms. Indeed, gold-standard medications for opioid use disorder are also widely denied or restricted by drug courts. My symptoms left me having difficulties keeping up with my daily responsibilities; but very few exceptions were made to this rule, and I had to struggle on without the right medication.

    Doesn’t collusion in government coercion count as an “outside issue”?

    As time went by, I became increasingly aware that “recovery,” per the criminal justice system, meant being indoctrinated into a certain belief system and cutting off your other supports—all as a means to avoid being incarcerated.

    AA and NA portray themselves as fellowships with “no opinion on outside issues.” But doesn’t collusion in government coercion to attend their meetings, under the threat of incarceration for non-compliance, count as an outside issue?

    The therapy groups that I was separately required to attend were essentially more 12-step meetings—subscribing to exactly the same philosophy, but with the label of “therapy” attached. I had welcomed the chance to attend the groups, believing they could have therapeutic value. But they turned out to be just another place for me to say that I would never do drugs again.

    Any time I attempted to dig past the drugs during groups—by discussing, for example, the reasons people use drugs in the first place, which include drugs’ benefits, it was disregarded. Drugs never did anything positive for me, I was told. If I continued using drugs, “Jails, institutions and death” would be the result. That’s a phrase taken from the “Big Book” of AA—in this case, the jails part was literally true, because of what would happen if I used in the drug court program.

    If I ever questioned these concepts, it was “your disease talking.”

    Time and time again, I would hear that I was powerless, that I was a victim, that I should surrender to a Higher Power. All of the systems I was wrapped up in were constantly telling me the same thing.

    I never liked the idea of considering myself powerless. Nor do I consider myself religious or spiritual, which meant the higher power idea made no sense. But if I ever questioned these concepts, it was “your disease talking.” I just needed to tow the line if I wanted to live a happy, healthy and successful life.


    Learning to Game the System

    Unable to reason with the program, my participation became a cynical game. Whether at the courthouse, 12-step meetings or the groups, I began just saying what they wanted to hear so I could “succeed.”

    The judge ate it up, congratulating me for my efforts.

    During one of my routine hearings with the judge, she asked me, in detail, about the work I’d done with my sponsor on the Third Step: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Surprised by this invasive question, I initially stumbled over my words, but had gone to enough meetings to regurgitate the terminology she wanted to hear. She ate it up, congratulating me for my efforts.

    I also knew that it was vital for me not to give a positive urine test. During my drug court hearings, I saw countless people being hauled directly into jail, mostly due to positive drug screens or lack of attendance of meetings and therapy.

    At some point, I became deeply aware that while I needed to complete these requirements to stay out of jail, I still wanted to use some drugs. I also began to learn, independently, about harm reduction—an approach that made sense to me on many levels.

    About halfway through my time in drug court, I learned that many participants were drinking—which was forbidden—because we weren’t routinely tested for it. I started drinking on the weekends and, due to my “good behavior,” was only tested once for alcohol in my year in the program.

    I eventually found a way to use other drugs in the program.

    In contrast, some of my peers who were a bit more open about their “relapses” and continuing desire to use drugs were tested more frequently—and those who “failed” their tests received extensions on their time in the drug court program.

    I was determined not to get caught out while finding creative strategies to maintain my cognitive liberty, and I eventually found a way to use other drugs in the program.

    One day, I had just finished peeing in the paper cup, with the drug dip test in it, as usual. As I walked out of the restroom, I examined the urine tests that were waiting there. Then I bought the same brand they used, and began testing myself so I would know in advance whether I would pass.

    With this reassurance, I began using amphetamine, because its relatively low half-life meant that it would leave my system within a day or two, as my self-testing confirmed.

    My other path was to use drugs like LSD, mushrooms and MXE (methoxetamine) that were simply not covered by the program’s testing method.

    Toward the end of the program, I also began to realize that the anonymity requirement of 12-step programs meant that those meetings couldn’t reliably track my attendance. So I also began to fake my attendance sheets, replicating the months of legitimate attendance sheets I had previously gained.


    Let’s Move on From This

    I continued doing what I had to do, including fulfilling my life responsibilities, while using these drugs. I continued to be told, several times a week, that actively using means your “disease” has taken you over completely, that you cannot make rational decisions, that you will fail in the drug court program and in life.

    Concurrently, I was learning more and more about harm reduction—and how people can live productive and fulfilling lives while using drugs, even if they have previously suffered drug-related harms. I knew which vision I found more convincing.

    All the same, the strain of living this lie, under constant threats and pressure, began to tell on me and I desired an escape. For my last three months of drug court, I began to use MXE heavily, alongside copious amounts of alcohol. I really did not want to go to jail, but I was just so sick of adhering to the strict requirements.

    My drug court experience highlighted true drug harms—the persecution of those who use them.

    My use was never detected, and ironically, I passed the program with flying colors. The drug court actually sent me a letter inviting me to attend the graduation ceremony; of course, I didn’t go. I was so traumatized from the program that I had a fear—irrational, because I was no longer under the court’s jurisdiction—that if I attended, they would drug test me on the spot. I never wanted to step into that courthouse again.

    Shortly afterwards, my relationships with drugs significantly improved. Without the fear of testing, I was able to resume my cannabis use—and that helped me to moderate, then and in the years since, my potentially harmful relationships with other drugs. My drug court experience had highlighted true drug harms—the persecution of those who use them.

    I have since been able to move forward positively with my life. But even my graduation from drug court did not amount to expungement: My charges remain publicly viewable to anyone with my name. Although I could pay to have the public records sealed, they would still be available to a law enforcement or licensing background search.

    History will not look kindly on the Biden administration’s expansion of a model rooted in the exploitative prejudice of the past.

    So that was my experience of the model that Biden—as a man who is personally abstinent from alcohol and whose family has been impacted by drug-related harms; and as a politician who was involved at the height of the US War on Drugs—wants to promote and expand.

    My story is just one. But there’s a wealth of literature and reporting to bear out the harms of an inherently coercive, anti-drug, anti-science system.

    We live in an era when marijuana legalization is spreading across the country and the world, and when Oregon has become the first US state to decriminalize all drugs. History will not look kindly on the Biden administration’s expansion, if it happens, of a model rooted in the exploitative prejudice of the past.

    I am privileged to have survived drug court. I hope that thousands more people like me will not have to.


    Photo by Elena Sannikova from Pixabay

    • Victor Hernandez is the pseudonym of a student and activist who lives in Colorado.

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