Drug Courts Targeting the Wrong Users
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Drug Courts Targeting the Wrong Users


Despite the rise of legalization, pot possession still gets more Americans arrested than any other drug offense. A pot smoker caught in the wrong place at the wrong time typically gets sent to one of the nation’s 2,700-some drug courts. In theory, the drug court system was intended to give hardcore addicts an alternative to prison, in the form of much-needed treatment. But in practice, many think it’s become something between a joke and a tragedy. While casual stoners are forced to jump through hoops like pricy treatment and mandatory karate classes, those who need the most help are turned away due to the strict eligibility requirements.

You’re Not in Kansas Anymore, You’re in Debt

Kansas may be right next door to pot-haven Colorado, but people caught with weed there will find themselves shelling out money for rehab at the risk of losing their drivers’ licenses. What might have incurred a small fine in the regular court system ends up costing thousands of dollars for more treatment than they need—and the threat of jail time if they break program rules.

The drug courts are so glutted with cannabis offenders that some counties have established special courtrooms to exclusively deal with pot. In Broward County in South Florida, a special marijuana court presided over by judge John A. Frusciante processes around 200 offenders each week. Frusciante (who presumably uses his middle initial to distinguish himself from the former Chili Pepper) believes the drug court system helps users and has mixed views on legalization.

“If you really have your act together and are using weed, it is probably under controlled circumstances where you are not going to be arrested,” Frusciante said. “If you are using it to the point where you are getting arrested, something is wrong there.” It seems like valid logic, but anyone caught driving sober with newly-purchased weed in his car would have a bone to pick with that argument.

The Filter Systems Needs Cleaning

Statistics from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals show that  75% of drug-court graduates make it at least two years post-treatment without getting re-arrested. But the system’s detractors argue that its high success rates result from intentionally admitting offenders with less serious problems while leaving the sickest addicts to the prisons. If only people with minor drug problems are passing through the system, its effectiveness is inflated.

“Everybody who gets arrested with drugs is automatically put in the category of drug addict. Then it is off to the races,” gripes Howard Finkelstein, a recovering coke addict who now serves as a public defender for Brower County. “Come to court every month. Get treatment here. Get counseling there. It just becomes a justification for the court.”

Worst of all, those who would benefit most from the drug court system are getting shut out. Case in point: one homeless heroin and cocaine addict convicted for dealing drugs was all set to go to rehab through drug court only to be ultimately denied treatment. Why? In a previous arrest, he’d mentioned to his intake officer that he felt suicidal, and a note was made in his record. The treatment center that the drug court referred him to claimed that it was “not equipped to handle suicidal patients,” and the addict was sent to prison.

Revamp the System

Clearly, change is necessary. If (or when) weed is decriminalized nationwide, the drug courts will finally have the time—and the obligation—to focus on the addicts they were designed to help.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.