The Trials of Addiction Last of 3 Parts Drug Court clients strive to stay the clean course

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

June 10, 2006

Hood River County Drug Court will celebrate its first anniversary in August and possibly graduate the first client by October.

Under ideal conditions, participants could graduate in one year. But the involved officials know that overcoming an addiction to methamphetamine creates anything but an ideal condition.

“One of the cornerstones of this program was the recognition that this drug is terribly addictive and people may stumble. But if they do, there’s going to be a sanction — there’s no free lunch here,” said District Attorney John Sewell.

“You are going to have to expect people to relapse. The idea that people have to want to get into treatment to succeed is a myth,” said Defense Attorney Jack Morris.

To date, Sewell has selected eight people for the special program that offers treatment instead of jail time. But three have been terminated for failure to abide by the edicts of the court. Four of the remaining five have relapsed — and only Ayla Nelson, 24, is staying on track at this point.

“That’s how it is, not everybody makes it, that’s the sad fact. But when someone does, it will be a pretty rewarding experience,” said Sewell. “Every day that they are clean and sober they get a little stronger, but it’s a long process.”

He and the rest of the drug court team have become Nelson’s greatest fans — they admit that it is exciting to see her getting close to the finish line. To date, Nelson has been clean and sober for nine months. She is now working at two jobs, living in a homey apartment, and gaining confidence daily.

“When I first took a hit of meth I felt like I was on top of the world, that I could do anything,” said Nelson in a recent interview.

“But eventually it stopped being fun. I had an eating disorder because of my addiction. And I wasn’t able to think straight anymore and plan something from beginning to end.”

Nelson began using meth at the age of 14; the year she moved out on her own. Her addiction quickly led her into a life of deception and crime. Eventually, Nelson would end up being hospitalized for starvation and rack up seven drug-related felonies on her record.

She had hit bottom by the time she entered the Hood River County judicial system. Nelson was ready to grab at the chance for a new life offered by the drug court team.

“I really value honesty now. My goal is to be able to stand on the top of a mountain and scream out an answer to any question about my life and not care who hears,” said Nelson.

“I don’t wake up every day now and want to get high. I don’t want any of it.”

Hood River County operates one of the 1,600 drug courts that have recently sprung up across the nation. The purpose of the diversionary program is to help repeat offenders overcome negative patterns that are destroying their lives and harming others.

“There are a lot of innocent bystanders, such as children, that also get hurt because of the addiction” said Sewell.

Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, who has served on Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s Meth Task Force, said statistics have shown that for every $1 invested in drug court, $10 are saved by taxpayers in corrections costs.

She said the rate of repeat offenses also becomes much lower; about 10 percent within the first year after graduation.

“There is no doubt in my mind that drug courts are doing a lot to eradicate meth in Oregon,” said Smith.

Lacey Matthews, 23, is well aware of the difficulty of the recovery process. She was the first enrollee in Hood River’s drug court last August, but has just been sanctioned for consuming alcohol, a violation of her probation and treatment plan.

After being out of jail for 48 hours, she is frustrated by the severity of the penalty. Matthews believes she would better in the Lane County Drug Court because officials offer more rewards than punishment. Plus, she will be able to visit her preschool-age daughter more often since the girl is living with Matthews’ parents in that location.

However, the local drug court team won’t even consider allowing Matthews to make the move until she has been a model citizen for four weeks. She expects compliance with that expectation to be difficult without the support of her best friend, Jason Carter. He is also a drug court client, but sits in jail for drinking and then assaulting her.

Matthews has promised not to testify against him. She hopes they can resolve the personal problems that led to the altercation.

“Right now I’ve just got to be sure I get everything done and I don’t mess up,” she said. “I think the roughest thing is that I’ve been in this lifestyle since I was 13 so it’s tough not to fall back on what I know.”

Matthews holds on to the fact that she only drank a beer and didn’t use meth during the recent turmoil.

“I feel that’s a major achievement. Even if the court doesn’t recognize it I do and my friends and family do,” she said.

She admits that her goal to get the drug charges cleared off her record so that she can get into a nursing program seems daunting at the moment. But she is learning not to focus on the negative; to keep moving forward toward the goal.

Matthews also acknowledges that she needs counseling to figure out how to avoid abusive relationships.

Sewell and Morris agree that many recovering addicts also have underlying emotional issues to overcome.

“I think almost the majority of people who wind up in this program have issues from way back before they started using drugs. Or they have issues related to the drug use. But, probably, most of the time they’ll have to deal with both,” said Morris.

Meth addiction is considered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy to be extremely difficult to overcome. The drug is manufactured from chemicals that stimulate the nervous system and provides a high that typically lasts 6-12 hours.

Because meth is so cheap to buy and produces such powerful effects, it has skyrocketed in popularity among drug users since the 1990s.

The long-term effects of snorting, smoking or injecting the synthetic substance includes a host of health problems, psychotic behavior and brain damage similar to Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or epilepsy.

“It’s a horrible monster; it’s just the worst,” said Probation Officer Susie Strom-Peebles. “Drug court participants have to change everything in their life and until they do that, the treatment is not going to take.”

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