Anything for a Clean Slate

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Getting busted with drugs is easy—just jump in a car with ‘em. But that doesn’t stop any of my friends from carrying their drugs everywhere they go. I have one friend who keeps this little Pokémon ball ashtray in his car full of weed. It sits right next to the regular ashtray. If I were a cop and I saw that thing, that’d be the first place that I would look for drugs. I told him that, but it didn’t even faze him. He’d been pulled over before a few times, gotten tickets, and never got searched for drugs.

Never mind the horror stories like the one about the little Honda packed full of 19 year-olds that got pulled over for forgetting to use a blinker, and before anyone knows what happened, half of them have got their backpacks ripped open, drugs spilling out of the compartments, and they’re all going to jail. That couldn’t ever happen to him! Well, keep on “hiding” your drugs in your Poké balls and glove compartments, people. You can just go ahead and count the days before you’ll be strapped down, with the cops firing up that cattle brand, about to get “Possession of a Controlled Substance” permanently fried across your face.

Imagine for a second that the flaming-hot iron is a couple inches from your skin. You can feel it scorching your flesh and it hasn’t even touched yet. And then someone bursts into the room: “Wait! He’s eligible for drug court! Drop the iron, we’re gonna forget this whole thing happened!”

And then they look to you: “So what’s it gonna be?”

I think you’d take the drug court—the best way to get your charges not only dropped but completely erased from your record. A clean slate.

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Drug courts are a total product of the 80s and 90s bullshit about “getting tough on crime,” minimum sentencing, more drug cops, and psychos like Ronald Reagan. The jails filled up fast and the courts got overloaded. But people didn’t stop using drugs. Not even a little bit.

The first American Drug Court popped up in 1989 outside Miami. Crack cocaine problems were supposedly getting so nasty that officials decided to try something different. Punishing and permanently labeling someone a criminal didn’t help “deter” them from breaking the law, so maybe treating them would.

The Dade County (Miami) Drug Court became the model for drug courts everywhere: an intense, year-long program where people volunteer to stay sober, take regular drug tests, go to classes, do acupuncture, and sit through all sorts of counseling and rehabilitation. If they completed the program, their criminal history would be sealed, which would hopefully open job opportunities. (Who wants to hire a convicted drug dude, right?) If they fucked up, they’d see punishments get more and more serious until they were kicked out. “Save it for the judge.” Punishments could be anything from writing a paper to jail time.

People all over the country liked the idea and cities all over started their own drug courts. The 77^th^ Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring all Texan counties with over 550,000 people to create drug courts. Today, there are thousands of drug courts across America.

The Travis County Drug Diversion Court, aka the S.H.O.R.T. program (System of Healthy Options for Release and Transition) started in 1993. The court’s website is pretty empty. But it does tell us that its mission is to “serve the people of Travis County by reducing substance abuse and related crimes” and its objective is “for the client to achieve a drug free lifestyle and become productive participants in our community.”

![The rising number of drug arrests was a huge factor in Texas' and the rest of the country's decision to try drug diversion courts. Texas required all counties with populations over 500,000 to start drug courts in 2001.][]

The rising number of drug arrests was a huge factor in Texas' and the rest of the country's decision to try drug diversion courts. Texas required all counties with populations over 500,000 to start drug courts in 2001.

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People can get into the SHORT program a couple ways. Program coordinators told me that, normally, “people go in front of the judge, and the judge says, ‘Hey I think the SHORT program would be a good thing for you.’” Then the SHORT program gets the referral and they start the application process. A lawyer can also help their client apply for the program. But either way, the program is voluntary.

I called up Jamie Spencer, a battle-hardened Austin criminal defense lawyer with 15 years’ experience, to get some SHORT program legalese. (Spencer talks fast as hell, and runs one of the few local blogs worth even looking at: austindefense.com.) He explained that once someone gets into SHORT, their case is “literally diverted into kind of a fake court, it’s not a real court, it’s not an elected district court, it doesn’t have actual felony jurisdiction. Basically the SHORT program is like a private agreement between the state and the defense lawyer and the defendant.” The agreement being that if you complete the drug court, your case will be dismissed.

Not everyone can get into the SHORT program. There’s a whole process and list of requirements that people gotta meet before they can get in.

Things like drug dealing, doing anything violent, warrants, suicidal tendencies, or being “medically unstable” will get your name scratched off the list. The court looks at every applicant and does interviews and research. They look at things like “amount of drug found” and they also keep in mind that “a drug court should really be treating the high risk, high need people.”

Spencer said the most common reason for clients not getting in is that “they are not enough of a drug addict, that they don’t need SHORT in the first place” and that there basically aren’t “enough spots in the drug court program for the number of people that would do well.”

SHORT coordinators denied that. “No, that’s never been a problem. We never deny somebody because the program was too full. Not since I’ve been here.”

When you look at the numbers, it’s not hard to believe there aren’t enough slots. Since at least 1998, there’ve only been 300 people in the SHORT program at any time.

Compare that with 5,897 drug (possession of controlled substance and dealing combined) arrests in Travis County that Texas officially reported to the FBI in 2009. Now compare that with the 2010 “Community Justice Plan” that claimed “25,555 charges booked in Travis County were substance-related” in 2008. And that’s coming from the Travis County Sheriff and the Adult Probation Department. I’d say SHORT could use a couple more slots.

So who is getting treatment? What kinds of people actually fill the SHORT program?

In one of the few scientific studies of the SHORT program, two researchers in 2005, Cunningham and Stone, found that “over half of the SHORT clients were white and about one-third were female.” 36% were black and only 8% were Hispanic. 72% of the SHORT group was employed.

A 2003 Texas State-funded study (“Initial Process and Outcome Evaluation of Drugs Courts in Texas”), found that 52% of the drug court were white, 30% were black, and 18% were Hispanic.

This isn’t what the Travis County Jail looks like. In 2006, the jail was split almost evenly: 33.2% white, 34.1% black, and 32.6% Hispanic. Only 38% of Travis County inmates were employed in the month before getting arrested.

Of the total Texan drug arrests in 2009, two big numbers stood out: 3,418 of them were for marijuana and 1,528 were for crack/cocaine. I asked SHORT coordinators if they saw a lot of marijuana users go through the program. “Yeah. We get marijuana. We get a whole lot of it. It’s one of the major. It’s one of the prevalent drugs of choice right now, among drug users. Marijuana is a real big deal.”

A 2007 report by the Texas State Legislative Budget Board (LBB) said that of all the Travis County felony drug arrests, 92.6% of them were for crack or cocaine. “Crack/cocaine appears to be the primary problem in Travis County,” it said. And if you’ve ever hung around East Riverside like most of the Austin Cut has, you’ll agree.

I read this number to the SHORT people and asked about how many cocaine users they get. I got a list: “we get crack cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, ecstasy, hallucinogens, prescription drug addicts.” I interrupted, “so you get everything.” Them: “Yeah.”

I asked why there were so many white people in the program. “Well … it’s just random. It’s which people are referred to us through lawyers, through the court system, through pretrial services. And when we get that person, we’re not looking at their ethnicity. We’re looking at if they meet the requirements of the program. If they do, they’re in.”

And how could you argue with that?

The Travis County Drug Court's office is modest

The Travis County Drug Court's office is modest

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It’s hard to actually know whether or not these programs can really make a dent in the drug problem. They treat such small amounts of people, compared to how many are flying in and outta the back seat of cop cars and courtrooms, that scientists can barely agree on anything they find in reports.

Recidivism, or getting rearrested for a similar (drug) crime, is usually what researchers look at. The results of the studies are really sensitive to things like how long after the drug court researchers check in on people, the definition of “recidivism,” what violations count, and a billion other variables.

Most scientific drug court reports end with inconclusive or “statistically insignificant” results. One thing most researchers seem to agree on is more testing is needed.

How the comparison group gets chosen is another reason why studies fluctuate so much. Totally random groups have way different results than ones matched by race, gender, employment, etc.

The State of Texas’ findings are super optimistic. In their “Initial Process and Outcome Evaluation…” they took a group of SHORT graduates and a comparison group, and checked on them two years after release. The comparison group was way younger and smaller. It also had way less whites, more blacks, and more Hispanics. Younger people get rearrested quicker. Minorities don’t do as well in drug court programs, for some reason. Basically all the differences between the groups are things that would make the SHORT group look better.

The result of the study isn’t surprising: 24.5% of SHORT graduates were rearrested within two years versus 45.5% of the comparison group. They added that none of the completers were incarcerated (found guilty and imprisoned) compared to 14.1 percent of the comparison group who were.

Now let’s look at an actual peer-reviewed scientific study.

The Cunningham and Stone study, “Effects of a Drug Diversion Court on Client Recidivism” (2005), took 50 SHORT graduates and made a control group of the same size from people who were screened out of the program or were eligible but didn’t volunteer.

They tracked them three years after the start date. This was marked as “acceptance to SHORT” or “conviction” (probation or jail). There’s one important thing about this study. Instead of randomly grabbing people who were in SHORT and then comparing them to random people who weren’t, in this study they matched everyone in the SHORT group and the control group based on what type of person they were. So each group basically had the same amount employed people, people with criminal history, blacks, whites, Hispanics, males, females, married people, etc.

They found that there was basically no difference between the groups when it came to getting rearrested on drug charges. Actually, the SHORT group had one more drug arrest than the control. The SHORT graduates also got rearrested faster than the control group (almost “three times faster”). They guessed that “the SHORT group may have failed earlier simply because they had access to freedom faster.”

Another study, done by UT’s William R. Kelly, found that 38% of Travis County drug court participants got rearrested after one year versus 41% of a comparison group.

When I branched out of Travis County and looked to Tarrant County, I found similar things. In a 2000 study of Tarrant County's drug court, researcher Al Bavon found that the 1-year rearrest rate for the drug court group was only 4% better than the comparison group. This study also looked at things like bookings, time sentenced, and time to arrest within that year. 59% of all people in the study booked on any charge were from the drug court group. Out of the 19 people sentenced to jail time or prison in the study, 10 were from the drug court group. Also, on average it took three months less for the drug court clients to get arrested again.

The Department of Justice says that drug courts list recidivism rates anywhere from 2-20%. As you can see, the numbers are all over the place. Maybe that’s just what happens when you get a small group of druggies together and try and perform statistical experiments on them. Maybe Texas is right and drug courts really do “end the cycle of drug abuse and crime.” Or maybe drug courts are full of shit. Who really knows? The only thing we can really agree on is that busted drug users tend to get busted again.

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“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.”
-TITUS 2:11

One of the oldest models of drug abuse is the moral one. You can trace it right back to the good ol’ word of God. In the moral model, the addict is spiritually corrupted—that’s why they use drugs.

The first American anti-opium law was a San Francisco ordinance. Charles Terry’s 1928 book, The Opium Problem, says that the authorities investigated the dens and found “many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the [Chinese opium smoking] dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise.” Opium was outlawed and only outlaws smoked opium from then on.

Cocaine was made illegal thanks to ridiculous claims of wild Southern blacks getting high and molesting white women. “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers” smoked marijuana, so that was made illegal, too. And there’s only one way to deal with a morally crooked outlaw: throw away the key.

The arguments against alcohol around Prohibition were moral, too. The Temperance Movement associated drinking with the evils of saloons, German-Americans during WWI, prostitution, crime, disease, and (of course) death.

All along, doctors had been hinting at the disease model of addiction. The theory goes back hundreds of years, but it wasn’t made official by the American Medical Association until 1956.

Alcoholics Anonymous was started in 1935 by Dr. Bob and Bill W. It’s credited for making the disease model of addiction popular. Dr. Bob was an alcoholic before prohibition and when it came around, in 1919, he still couldn’t quit. Being a doctor, he discovered “medicinal” alcohol, bootleggers, and a way to keep on drinking. Bill W., with the help of Dr. William Silkworth, was able to get off alcohol by thinking about alcoholism as an illness, not a corrupt habit. Do I really need to tell you that AA was successful, revolutionized drug rehab, and exploded across the country?

These days, the disease theory is mainstream. Drug courts follow this model, and send clients off to rehab programs as fast as possible. SHORT coordinators told me, “we work with all the treatment programs in the surrounding areas. We work with employment agencies. We work with GED programs, we work with sober types of housing. Whatever we need to help our client.”

Drug courts aren’t rehab centers, though. They’re part of the criminal justice system. So if a person fucks up, drinks or gets high, then there are punishments. It’s agreed that the person is an addict, a slave to their drug using. But at the same time they’re supposed to also be rational enough to be thinking about whatever legal consequences are waiting. Can a real, hardcore addict do this? Would someone with nothing to lose even care (or even be in the program at all)?

“We do have to apply certain sanctions in order for them to learn from the process. With addicts, sometimes they get away with a lot in their lives and they manipulate,” the SHORT program told me. A “sanction” (fancy for punishment) can be anything from “writing a paper or letter to somebody, to community service hours, to a weekend in jail.” Defense lawyer Spencer said that having to re-do a phase of the program (this can be several months) or jail time are the most common punishments.

![From the 2008 National Drug Court Institute's “A National Report Card on Drug Courts and Other Problem- Solving court Programs in the United States”][]

From the 2008 National Drug Court Institute's “A National Report Card on Drug Courts and Other Problem- Solving court Programs in the United States”

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I was contacted by an ex-SHORT client who talked about his time in the late 90s. John got arrested during a warrant roundup weekend where the cops get a list of a bunch of people with unpaid tickets and pound on their doors. Supposedly, and trust me when I say this story isn’t extremely believable, he was with “30 people in the holding cell and the jailers found a baggie on the floor, and picked me to take the fall for it.” The judge recommended drug court to John’s lawyer.

John took the SHORT program to get out of the felony drug case.

He described daily life in the SHORT program. “They wanted you to go to AA/NA meetings 3 times a week, and their own classes several times a week, which were a joke. Stress management, where we had acupuncture and took walks around the block. We even listened to tapes of water running with our heads down. Not sure how you get off of drugs that way, but it was required.”

John thought drug court “would be easy, but they require so much per week and the times of the classes don't fit into anybody's regular work schedule.”

So, he missed a lot of work. “If you were behind on classes due to work, you couldn’t advance to the next phase … if you missed work to go to the classes, you had no money for fees. Then, on top of everything else, you had night court and random drug testing. You had to call daily and were assigned a color, and if that day was your color, you had to take more time off from work to go in for a UA.”

He said that eventually he got so stressed out that he started taking drugs. “Everybody had them there.” So, of course, he failed a bunch of drug tests. He ended up on a “fast track” where he had to take 9 UAs a week plus everything else.

In my interview with Jamie Spencer, he said that a good lawyer should let the client know what they’re getting into with drug court. “I tell everybody, yes, this is only one year, but actually it’s kind of like getting 2-5 years of probation all shoved into one year.”

I asked John, since he was innocent and all, why he didn’t just fight the charges. He said he could have fought the charge in court, but he was “scared about even having a felony.”

John’s off drugs these days, but he’s bitter. “I went into jail for a $113 [ticket] owed and walked out with $4,500 in lawyer fees, bail, classes, and a drug habit. The program doesn’t work… The only person who can kick a habit is themself. I kicked it by myself, ‘cause I wanted it. I didn't have to take classes or NA to tell me to kick it.”

Who knows? So maybe John was an addict. You’re only an addict if you won’t admit it.

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Stress makes people relapse. It also makes them use more drugs. So putting people in a stressful drug court seems backwards, to say the least. That’s why when you see TV shows with rehab facilities, there are always people just lounging … you know, Zen, and all that bullshit.

There are a ton of twisted science experiments where they take rats, get them addicted to heroin or cocaine, take them off the drug for a while, and then shock them for a second and see what happens. The rats almost always run straight for the drugs.

Actually, one researcher working with heroin rats even said that “the effect [of shocking them] was very similar to that seen following a priming infusion of heroin.” Stress made the rats try to get more heroin, basically as much as giving the rats actual heroin did. Another study showed that 1-day starvation had the same effect as a shock.

It seems like people naturally “self-medicate” to deal with stressful things. Some people drink, some smoke cigarettes and pace back-and-forth until they wear a hole in their carpet, and ex-heroin-addicted rats look for heroin.

Then there’s the good ol’ Viet Nam heroin case. Only 6% of American soldiers who’d used heroin ended up re-addicted after three years back in the states, despite 75% of them admitting they were addicted while there.

The American Psychological Association doesn’t even use the word “addiction.” Even those losers, the ones who called being gay a mental disorder, take the high ground and say “substance dependence.” They define it as tolerance, withdrawal after stopping, and ignoring the problems that come with use. You could stretch that out onto almost any drug (legal or not) or activity if you wanted to.

A constant habit of taking drugs isn’t necessarily addiction. I’ve heard a billion losers brag about how “addicted” to coffee they are. Cigarettes too. And trust me, everyone in the Midwest is on a half-gallon-of-vodka-every-three-days routine. Just living there, if you can even call it living, is stressful enough.

Bruce Alexander built “Rat Park” (also the unofficial name of the study), a giant rat paradise cage compared to the little prisons they normally got for his 1970 drug addiction study. Rat Park was populated with a colony of rats. Then there were other rats who were isolated in small, boring cages. All rats had access to two water sources: one was normal, the other had morphine. Researchers tracked the rats and how much morphine they took. Isolation rats used a lot of morphine. The colony rats avoided it, but they’d use more drugs once they got moved into the cage. When the isolation rats were moved to the colony, they’d mostly stop taking drugs, regardless of the withdrawals.

This, like the Viet Nam case, goes against the opinion that any amount drug use causes addiction. Drug courts, even though they’re really small, are a billion times better than prison. For some reason, we’re keeping the number of people allowed in drug court at a constant low, while the number of people in Travis County and the number of drug arrests goes up.

In 2001, while Texas was just starting to look at their drug courts to try and figure out how effective they were, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Instead of the prison sentences they were handing out, they made and started sending busted users though Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (CDTs). The goal of these CDTs is to convince the user to stop taking drugs and to get them into drug rehab. Dealers, people caught with more than 10 days’ worth of a drug, still went to jail. (The United Nations demands that countries make cultivating, distributing, selling, and possessing illegal drugs … illegal.) Punishments for drug possession can be anything from community service, to fines, to restrictions on where you’re allowed to be in public, to getting licenses taken away.

Studies show that there was a slight overall increase in drug use, that HIV rates fell by huge amounts, drug deaths didn’t happen as often, young people used less drugs, the amount of drugs found by police increased, the criminal justice system’s workload got smaller, and the price of street drugs fell (dealing was less lucrative).

Usually, heroin users are treated with methadone or buprenorphine. But there’ve been European studies on different strategies for treating drug users—treating them with their drug of choice. Studies on heroin-treatment have shown that, compared to methadone groups, the users have better health, stay with the program longer, use less other-illegal or street drugs, and some even get jobs, homes, and start families after long periods of not.

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Harm reduction will be the future of drug policy, unless some seriously dark-ages shit happens. The fact that drug courts in Texas are “treating” people for marijuana addiction, while other parts of the country are straight up selling it as medicine is totally crazy.

I don’t care what anyone says. Marijuana isn’t addictive. Try looking for scholarly articles about marijuana addiction, treatment, and withdrawal. They’re hilarious. One even poetically tries to describe the “constellation of symptoms: irritability, anxiety, marijuana craving, decreased quality and quantity of sleep, and decreased food intake.” As far as I’m concerned, those are mostly good things. No normal person should eat or sleep as much as a pothead.

The most successful “treatments” basically come down to giving the drug users the drug they want. Their drugs!!! Anything less and the users stop doing what the researchers and, eventually, what the authorities want.

If you want to argue that all we need is harsher punishments, get up there and demand we castrate these sick fuckers. Then we’ll really see whether they’re gonna stop or not.

Maybe the ultimate realization about drugs, prohibition, and this “war” will be that you can’t tell anybody what the hell to do, and good luck trying to force them. At least with most drug people, their only crime is using drugs and they’re not going to stop. So what’s the point in even trying?

[The rising number of drug arrests was a huge factor in Texas' and the rest of the country's decision to try drug diversion courts. Texas required all counties with populations over 500,000 to start drug courts in 2001.]: http://austincut.com/sites/default/files/images/drug-arrests-texas-1990-2000.png "The rising number of drug arrests was a huge factor in Texas' and the rest of the country's decision to try drug diversion courts. Texas required all counties with populations over 500,000 to start drug courts in 2001." [From the 2008 National Drug Court Institute's “A National Report Card on Drug Courts and Other Problem- Solving court Programs in the United States”]: http://austincut.com/sites/default/files/images/national-drug-court-survey-drug-of-choice.png "From the 2008 National Drug Court Institute's “A National Report Card on Drug Courts and Other Problem- Solving court Programs in the United States”"

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