Editor’s Note: This story is the first in a series covering Perry County’s drug court program, focusing on the progress of clients currently in the program or who have graduated.
HAZARD – Scott Thompson was 18 when he first tried OxyContin, a powerful and highly addictive prescription painkiller. He was still just a teenager when he awoke one morning less than a year later and the realization hit him – he was also an addict.
“I didn’t even know that you could wake up pill sick,” he remembered during an interview with the Herald in November.
For most of the past decade Scott has struggled with addiction. For the last three years he has been a client with the drug court in Hazard.
Drug courts offer an alternative to jail or typical probation by means of a closely supervised program that requires treatment, random drug testing and regular meetings with the drug court staff. Sanctions for veering away from the program’s guidelines or an inability to complete the program include jail time.
Here in Kentucky where there are more deaths from accidental overdoses than automobile accidents, Scott’s story is one of many in the commonwealth that run along similar lines. By his own admission, Scott had a good life growing up. He had caring parents, he did well in school and played basketball. He even enrolled in college after graduating from high school.
But it was during his freshman year that he said what began as something he did for fun spiraled into something else all-together.
“It was just recreational at first, and I never did stop, and it became a habit,” he said. “I went from smoking marijuana to doing prescription drugs, mostly OxyContin. I was literally ignorant to what that drug could do to a person. I just didn’t know.”
In 2008 he was arrested on felony charges in Floyd County. Those charges were amended to misdemeanors and he was accepted into the Floyd County Drug Court. Two weeks later his case was transferred back to his native Perry County.
While other drug courts only accept offenders with misdemeanor charges, the program in Perry County can accept nearly any offender, with one exception being those charged with a violent crime.
“We look at everybody individually,” noted Teresa Huff, drug court coordinator in Perry County, because, she added, each individual case may require different approaches.
In Scott’s case, he was this month evaluated at a center in Breathitt County to determine if there were any issues that might have been the cause of his relapse. Huff described it as “sort of a last-ditch effort” to get him back on track within the framework of drug court.
Like most, Scott’s attempt at overcoming addiction has been an ongoing struggle. Just last month he was remanded to the Kentucky River Regional Jail in Hazard after informing the drug court staff that he had been using synthetic drugs that aren’t detectable in standard drug tests. He spent several days in jail over the Thanksgiving holiday prior to his evaluation.
“He fell in with a crowd that we had that was doing synthetic drugs, and Scott is not a social user … that uses with someone else,” Huff explained early this month. “Scott is the full definition of an addict. That synthetic material that was available really sent him down the wrong path.”
Scott’s progress through drug court was nullified after the incident in November, and he was placed back in Phase I where he was to restart the program from the beginning. His status is now in question, however, after he was jailed again on Friday on a charge of driving under the influence. Drug court officials are currently awaiting the results of a blood test to determine how to proceed. Huff noted that he could be removed from the program, depending on the results of the test.
But he has had some success during his time in drug court. At one point Scott had been clean for nine months, the longest, he noted, since he began using 10 years ago. But when he underwent surgery and was prescribed pain medication his addiction resurfaced. He said he put that surgery off for as long as could, knowing that with the type of surgery he had, he would be prescribed painkillers.
“I had to have it (pain medication) for a day or two, and I never could get back on track,” he said. “I just kind of plummeted right back downhill after that.”
He returned home from Breahitt County this month where he noted on Wednesday that he was lucky to have been given another opportunity to remain with drug court. He said he is confident that he can turn his life around because he’s seen several people do it.
“I know I can turn it around; I’m smart enough to,” he said. “I’ve got daughters, but I’ve got to take care of myself first. It might sound selfish, but if I can’t take care of Scott, how can I take care of anybody else? That’s what I’m really going to have to do, is focus on me and get myself better physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, the whole nine yards.”
‘Something to do’
One person who Scott witnessed overcoming his addiction is Jerald Slover, a Perry County resident who this year graduated from drug court and now actually works for the program.
“I was raised around drugs,” Slover said of his early drug use. “It all started when I was 12, started smoking pot, then pot led into pills. Then it was 2001when I got introduced to OxyContin. My friends were doing it, and I thought it was cool if I could do it too.”
Jerald’s road through addiction wasn’t an easily traveled one, and it’s something he said he still struggles with even now.
“It’s a daily battle,” he admitted. “I’m not cured. I’m sober, but it’s a daily battle. I go to NA meetings, you’ve got to do that to stay sober.”
In the early days Jerald noted that he never realized he had a problem, and “always thought it was something to do.” He was arrested and charged with drug trafficking, and later accepted into drug court. Just over 19 months later he was a graduate and drug free, and in July actually got a job working with the program to help addicts turn their lives around.
But his first experience with drug court wasn’t something he asked for, or something that he initially wanted.
“Really, I wanted probation,” he remembered. “But my wife asked my lawyer, could I get drug court.”
That was a decision that Jerald credits with saving his life. “I would be dead (otherwise). I was doing 1,000 milligrams a day.”
At the time Jerald entered drug court it was an 18-month program. He completed his cycle in 19 and a half months. But he admitted that it wasn’t easy. His first impression was that he would never make it through, and assumed he would get sanctioned and return to jail. But after a time something changed.
That was his turning point.
“After I was there probably five months, then something just hit me,” he said. “I didn’t want to do dope no more.”
He credits his family as a main factor for his making that decision, because it was then that he realized what would happen were he to fail in his effort with drug court.
“I started thinking straight, then I started realizing what I had, and if I done it again what I would lose,” he said.
Fast forward to present day and Jerald has been clean for 34 months, and he exemplifies the notion that addiction can be overcome, said Teresa Huff.
“He graduated earlier this year, (and) began working with our assertive community treatment team,” Huff explained. “And it’s been wonderful. He is just the person that I want to put out there to help everybody, because he’s been there and done that.”
Though Jerald and Scott share many similarities and have known each other for years, their stories at this point have taken very different paths. But for Scott, he says knows his story isn’t yet finished, and he believes he can still overcome the addiction that he described as once being his full-time job. And he says he is also confident that despite his past failures, he has a future ahead of him and his case isn’t irreparable. “I’ve got more hope than that.”
The drug court’s beginnings in Perry County were the fulfillment of a campaign promise made by then candidate Bill Engle in 2004.
By the time Engle was sworn in as circuit judge in 2005, he had already laid the foundation for drug court in Perry County. The day after his election he began contacting other counties where drug courts were already established. By 2006, he and Teresa Huff were coordinating their first graduation.
Though there have been some successes, not all of the graduates will remain drug free after they leave the program. Judge Engle noted that drug court is so hands-on that it is hard for a participant to slip through the cracks. More often than not, if they’re using while in the program they will be caught. But sometimes they do slip through, and that was something he learned the hard way.
“It took me a while to adjust as judge. I thought once you go into drug court, once you gave everybody counseling, the supervision, the encouragement, that everything would be great,” he said. “I have since learned after a whole lot of heartbreak, it doesn’t work that way, that sometimes it’s three steps forward and one or two back.”
But the numbers are promising. According to a 2005 study published by the Urban Institute evaluating 2,000 graduates from 95 different drug courts across the nation, recidivism rates for graduates is 16 percent in the first year and 27 percent in the second year after graduation. That’s compared to 46 and 60 percent respectively for offenders who receive only probation.
While Engle acknowledged that a part of overcoming addiction is often relapse at some point, and he’ll be the first to admit that drug court isn’t a perfect system, he does think that for the most part it works and is well worth the funds used to administer it.
“One thing I know for sure is, doing nothing isn’t the answer to it, so you try (to do something),” he said.
There is an additional wealth of data showing that drug courts ultimately reduce crime, but the system is not without its critics. A 2011 op-ed submitted to the Baltimore Sun by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Justice Policy Institute criticized the growing use of drug courts as an ineffectual answer to the issue of drug abuse that unnecessarily increases expense to the state. Both organizations support more community-backed initiatives.
“Some might argue that, for the right results, increased criminal justice involvement is worth it,” the editorial reads. “But it isn’t. Treatment through the criminal justice system, including drug courts, is not found to be more effective than treatment in the community — though it is significantly more expensive.”
For Jerald Slover, who had and continues to have intimate experience with a drug court program, the effort is worth it, and drug court gives its participants valuable knowledge they will need to remain drug free well after graduation. But ultimately, he added, overcoming addiction is going to be up to the individual.
“Drug court gives you the tools to stay sober,” he said. “But if you don’t want to be sober, you ain’t gonna stay straight. You gotta really want it.”