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Drug Crimes and Rehab

I’m a criminal lawyer. My clients go to drug and alcohol rehab all the time. Candidly, most of the time they do so in order to avoid a harsher sentence. The rest of the time they are motivated to go because a family member pushes them in. Almost never have I been asked by a client to help them with their addiction and I find this surprising. It is often abundantly clear to me the toll my client’s alcohol or drug use has taken on him, but my client is blind to it.

In Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings all over the country, speakers repeat the mantra that an alcoholic must “hit bottom” in order to seek help. But I’m not sure what “bottom” is. Is it a man who has two DWI convictions? Three? Two prison sentences? Is it a formally attractive woman who has lost all of her teeth because of meth use? What does it take?

There seems to be a change in mindset in the criminal courts about drug crimes –  both State and Federal. Much dialogue is exchanged about helping the addicted, rather than incarcerating them. Judge’s love to put people with drug crimes into State sponsored treatment facilities. I think that most of them want to do the right thing. In theory, it is a way to treat the addicted. In practice, however, it’s simply another form of incarceration.

Treatment is an absolute waste of time and money unless and until the addict has reached that crisis point. The pain of his drug or alcohol use must finally overwhelm any benefit he obtains from them. Most Judges don’t understand that there is a benefit to drug and/or alcohol use – especially for the addict.

The vast majority of individuals who use illegal drugs do not get addicted. What makes an addict is in dispute. Some say environment. Some say it is genetic. I don’t agree with those who call drug or alcohol addiction a disease, but in the individuals I come across in my criminal practice, those clearly addicted have one consistent similarity.

For the non-addicted user, drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, prescription opioids and alcohol provide temporary entertainment. However for the addicted, the use of his drug of choice is absolutely necessary to relieve him from the pain, anxiety and stress of ordinary life. The brain of the addicted user has been forever changed by his consistent use, and he isn’t able to manage the difficulties of a normal existence without drugs or alcohol.

Cessation of drug use is often required after an arrest since most courts require regular drug testing, but withdrawal is typically not a problem. The vast majority of my clients don’t suffer from physical withdrawal symptoms, and those that do can get through it. The more difficult problem for my addicted clients is how to manage the protracted withdrawal. In short, they can’t seem to find a way to balance the ups and downs of life without drugs or alcohol.

This doesn’t seem like much of a problem for most of us, since we have developed mechanisms to get by. But for the addicted, the only mechanism in place is drug or alcohol use. And it works. Much of the point of rehab is to teach the addicted how to manage the vagaries of life without intoxicants. But this lesson takes time – substantially more time than it takes to graduate from the in-patient portion of the program.

The addict will try at rehab, especially when they are cloistered away in a managed world where even their decision on what food to eat is decided for them. But the real world awaits them. In-patient rehab is no different from jail for an addicted individual who hasn’t reached that crisis point. Conversely, if the addicted individual has reached that crisis point, then court intervention is unnecessary. That addict will do all that is necessary to remain clean, irrespective of the sentence.

The courts have a way to test individuals to see if they have drug and alcohol problems. This is done by interviews through the probation department. However, there is no real test that identifies whether an individual is actually ready to be helped. In my view, this should be the lynchpin question.