Drug courts, meant to aid addicts, now a battlefield of pot politics

Buyers line up at a store selling marijuana in Pueblo West, Colo. While Colorado makes pot readily available, some counties in neighboring Kansas send even casual users to treatment for drug abuse.
(John Wark / Associated Press)

Attorney David West can’t pinpoint precisely when he started to sour on the rapid expansion of drug courts — but the karate episode stands out.

West, a criminal defense lawyer in the Atlanta area, was representing a client busted in a town north of the city for possession of pot. Faced with the prospect of losing his driver’s license and being haunted by a criminal record, the client opted for treatment.

The intensive, costly therapy was more appropriate for a heroin addict, West said. What he found particularly absurd was the requirement that his client enroll in and pay for three months of martial-arts training.

“It is ridiculous,” said West, who has since had other clients ordered to take karate. “What does that have to do with marijuana?”

Both the White House and prominent Republicans have pushed to expand drug courts — programs that allow drug offenders to choose court-supervised treatment over punishment.


And there is little doubt that such programs can sometimes have dramatically positive effects. West and many experts credit them with transforming the lives of addicts.

But many longtime supporters of the program have become dismayed by the extent to which the courts now reach into the lives of people whose only infraction was to light up a joint.

More Americans are arrested for pot possession than any other drug offense, with more than 650,000 such arrests in 2012. In many areas, those charged with marijuana possession are the single largest group of offenders sent to drug-court treatment programs.

Though drug courts have been pitched as a way to divert hard-core addicts from prison and into treatment, strict eligibility rules in many jurisdictions bar chronic abusers of hard drugs.

“For serious drug offenders it has been a far better alternative than prison,” said John Roman, a senior analyst at the Urban Institute who began studying drug courts 17 years ago, when only a handful existed. “The problem is very few people who have those serious problems get into one of these drug courts. Instead, we take all kinds of people into drug court who don’t have serious problems.”

As a result, the courts, which are controlled locally and now number more than 2,700, have become a battleground of marijuana politics. For example, while Colorado makes pot available for purchase to any adult who will pay the sales tax, some counties in neighboring Kansas send even casual users to treatment for drug abuse.

Some pot users who might have simply faced a fine in the regular court system are instead getting moved into the drug-court system for months on end, Roman said. They are often required to pay for expensive treatment programs and risk jail time if they break program rules along the way.

“Once you get that deep into the criminal justice system, it can be really hard to get out,” Roman said.

So many marijuana offenders are being shuffled through drug courts that some counties now have entire courtrooms that deal with just that group. In south Florida’s Broward County, a special marijuana drug court processes some 50 to 80 offenders each day, three days a week.

The judge who runs it is hardly a crusader against pot. In an interview, Judge John A. Frusciante expressed ambivalence about the nation’s shift toward decriminalization. The people who wind up in his court typically have problems that run much deeper than affinity for an occasional bong hit, he said.

“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.”

Frusciante insists those who go through his program be screened for earlier traumas, such as sexual abuse, that can be addressed with targeted therapy. He says offenders are constantly thanking him — and even their arresting officers — for helping them gain a footing in life.

His descriptions of the process sometimes sound more like those of a social worker than a judge.

“We try to emphasize that each and every individual is worth it,” he said. “I don’t care if they are homeless, if their mother, their brother, their teacher told them they will never amount to anything. They have value. We try to convince them of that.”

Frusciante said that few graduates of the program get rearrested, and statistics back him up. According to the National Assn. of Drug Court Professionals, 75% of drug-court graduates are free of any new criminal charges two years after graduating from the program.

But critics say a major reason the drug courts can boast such success is because they avoid tackling the hard cases. A group of scholars who recently reviewed data from drug courts concluded the system has done little to reduce prison crowding for that reason.

“People want these programs to be successful,” said Harold Pollack, a professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago. “They are leery of bringing populations into them that will frighten the public.”

Broward County’s long-time public defender, a former cocaine addict who says drug courts can, indeed, work miracles, called the county’s marijuana court “one of the stupidest courts ever created.”

“Most of the people in drug court now are not like me,” said Howard Finkelstein. “They are not addicts.”

“Everybody who gets arrested with drugs is automatically put in the category of drug addict. Then it is off to the races,” Finkelstein added. “Come to court every month. Get treatment here. Get counseling there. It just becomes a justification for the court.”

In New York, attorneys at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem say they are continually frustrated to see small-time pot offenders get pressured into treatment regimens while addicts they represent are disqualified.

“It is not working the way we thought or hoped it would,” said Rick Jones, executive director of the nonprofit group.

In the spring, a homeless client addicted to cocaine and heroin was accepted into drug court after an arrest for selling drugs. Soon after, though, the court blocked him from entering treatment.

Corrections department records said that the defendant had told a jail intake officer during a prior arrest that he had thought about suicide. The treatment center contracted by the state said it was not equipped to handle suicidal patients. So the client was sent to prison.

“We dangled the opportunity for treatment and help in front of him, then they said we can’t place him in a program,” said Teghan DeLane, the attorney on the case. “It was incredibly unfair… I started crying in the courtroom.”

But nobody was crying for a truck driver in Broward County recently arrested for marijuana possession. He told the court he was not a drug abuser and had no desire for counseling. The court, though, had another plan.

“I asked to see his driver’s license,” said Judge Sharon Zeller, who sometimes presides over the marijuana court. “Then I asked the clerk for a pair of scissors, put the driver’s license in the scissors and held it up. I said, ‘Do you understand what this will do to your license?’ He turned white as a ghost… This man is now going to sign up for drug court.”