The United States has long since lost the “War on Drugs,” and no drug demonstrates the futility of fighting addiction with cops and courts better than crystal meth does. Crystal meth floods the brain with the pleasure chemicals – primarily dopamine – that most of us receive only in the tiniest doses (a six-second orgasm, petting a kitten, etc). Once a person experiences physical withdrawal symptoms, their brain activity will have undergone a permanent change that cannot be “undone.” Brain scans of serious addicts in withdrawal show that meth addicts have the same brain chemistry as someone delirious from starvation. Long term users sometimes lose the ability to produce their own dopamine without the aid of crystal meth.
This means that a serious addict can become chemically unable to feel joy. That is, unless they can get one more hit.
Cops, courts, and prisons cannot frighten people out of using crystal meth. You cannot expect someone who is thinking like a delirious starving person, to rationally weigh the pros and cons of meth vs. prison time before scoring their next hit. For the addict, feeling pleasure for at least a little while is preferable to the dull, gray drone of sober existence.
And let us not forget the many thousands who use narcotics to “self-medicate” for undiagnosed mental illness. Drug addiction must be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue. It is so treated in more civilized parts of the world.
To California’s credit, a half-way solution is becoming increasingly popular. Many jurisdictions are experimenting with specialty drug-treatment courts. Combined with California’s Proposition 36, which allows drug offenders to participate in outpatient drug treatment in lieu of jail time, drug-treatment courts (DTCs) are a well-meaning attempt at treating the root of most of my clients’ criminal behavior. However, criminal sanctions (including jail time or state prison sentences) will follow failure to comply with treatment, which includes relapse. Little accounting is made of the fact that relapse is almost universal, even for those who eventually overcome their addictions. The vast majority of those participating in Prop. 36 in my jurisdiction are doing so because of crystal meth.
Is half-way better than no-way at all? People more informed than I may have statistics. But it sure doesn’t feel that way.
Despite the eerie resemblance that this whole dance bears to a regular-old-adversarial process, the judges like to say that DTC is “collaborative.” Everyone has the defendant’s best interests at heart, and everyone wants the defendant to succeed. The adversarial justice system is calling an armistice! Isn’t that great? We’re all working together to help these poor folks overcome the disease of addiction.
Today, a client of mine is being remanded into custody. She missed two scheduled drug tests. This gave the judge an opportunity to spout some of the other things that the DTC judges like to say:
“So, counsel, don’t you see how you’re undermining that goal by telling your client to remain silent when I ask her why her last urine test came up dirty? To make matters worse, she missed her previous two urine tests. Lack of funds is no excuse: Maybe she would have been able to afford them if she got a part-time job at Chipotle like the lady whose case we just called. Doesn’t she want a part-time job too?”
After all, urine tests only cost five-hours worth of minimum wage labor. Does that sound like a reasonable slice of the pie graph for you, judge? Is it possible that the dreariness of laboring at a fast food restaurant for five hours to pay for urine tests is a big part of why she uses in the first place? Also, don’t tell me with a straight face (“your Honor”) that the Fifth Amendment undermines your goals.
When this particular client is remanded for her malfeasance on probation, she walks past the “inspirational” posters that somebody thinks are mandatory in every DTC courtroom. At some point, the administrative office of courts must have walked through the building and said “You know what will help the repeat-molest victim not to take drugs every time she feels her uncle’s hands on her? A picture of some guy staring at a sunset from a sailboat with the word “POSSIBILITIES” emblazoned underneath it.” As my client is lead away, I can only gawk as I watch a judge try to fight a mental/public health epidemic by shaming and handcuffing the patients in a forum that eerily resembles an optometrist’s waiting room.
I regret to inform her that I can’t get her out by Christmas. Yes, she should have known better. But what is our excuse?