How law enforcement is changing its tune to address addiction

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published November 13, 2018

 David Clayton, of Families Against Narcotics, explained that in order to stay clean of drugs and alcohol, he keeps himself immersed in recovery programming. He’s pictured at Walter and Mary Burke Park in New Baltimore, where he said he often goes to clear his head.

David Clayton, of Families Against Narcotics, explained that in order to stay clean of drugs and alcohol, he keeps himself immersed in recovery programming. He’s pictured at Walter and Mary Burke Park in New Baltimore, where he said he often goes to clear his head.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

METRO DETROIT — It was Sept. 23, 2013.

He can tell you the exact day when he felt there was “no way out,” and he knew he needed to get serious about recovery from his addiction to heroin and alcohol.

“I was in treatment five different times,” said David Clayton, of Macomb Township. “I had been using for 11 years before I got sober, from the time I was 17 to 28, starting with prescription pills and marijuana and drinking, then heroin at 23.”

With a few years of clean time under him, with support and guidance from Alcoholics Anonymous, Clayton said he’s able to stay sober because he lives recovery. Every day he’s working his program, and he’s working to help others do the same.

Clayton found what avenue of recovery would work for him after 11 years of substance abuse. For some, it can take even longer. And while cognitive therapists, medical doctors and support groups can all offer suggestions and resources, it can be hard for a person in the throes of active addiction to find the help they need.

Increasingly often, people fighting a drug or alcohol problem are finding assistance in a possibly surprising place: law enforcement. The folks known for throwing handcuffs on drug users have been tweaking their methodologies to make more of an impact on the nation’s rampant drug epidemic.

Clayton, for instance, is an outreach coordinator with Families Against Narcotics, a nonprofit organization that provides support for people caught in the struggle of their loved ones’ addictions.

FAN’s office is tucked inside the 41-B District Court in Clinton Township, where one of metro Detroit’s most effective drug courts operates. Specialty Court Coordinator Kara Hartman explains to people that drug court is a lot of things: a highly involved, highly supervised alternative to traditional lockup for repeat offenders of drug-related crimes that can include anything from frequent drug testing and probation check-ins to behavioral therapy, intensive outpatient programming, medically assisted addiction treatment, support group intervention and lots more.

What drug court is not, Hartman stresses, is the proverbial “get out of jail free” card.

“This is something for repeat offenders who have been in and out of trouble with the law and (haven’t) been able to sustain sobriety alone. If someone is looking at a lengthier sentence because they’re caught in that cycle of criminal behaviors, this is a jail alternative,” she explained. “But what we make them do is very difficult — a lot of people prefer jail. You have to be really ready for change to (complete) drug court. You have to be at rock bottom and you just want to try something different.”

Judge Linda Davis oversees offenders in the 41-B drug court, and more regularly, participants in the program meet with peer recovery coaches and support groups during the week.

“It’s a very structured program with a lot of requirements,” Hartman said. “The first 90 days of the program, you have to go to AA every day. You have to go to court every week; you have peer recovery every week; you drug and alcohol test three to four times a week. To people new to recovery, it’s kind of overwhelming. There are many people who say, ‘I can’t do this. This isn’t for me.’ But if they get through those first 90 days, even then they say, ‘My life has changed.’”

All of those appointments, not surprisingly, come with plenty of invoices. The court is able to defray many of those costs for participants through grant funding that can assist with anything from drug testing fees to medication-assisted treatment that involves prescriptions like naltrexone, name brand Vivitrol.

“We don’t deny those who need Suboxone, but the grant pays for Vivitrol,” Hartman said of drugs that can treat opioid dependency and help prevent relapses into alcohol or drug abuse, respectively. “Sometimes that’s necessary. Alcohol can be more dangerous than heroin to detox from, so we don’t deny (participants) who need either. But with that grant money, we are able to get people into three-quarter housing … it saves money by not using the jail.”

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Phyllis McMillen agreed, noting that in Oakland County, the cost savings of keeping a drug offender out from behind bars is substantial, at about $100 per night per inmate.

And on her docket, there are a lot of qualifying offenders.

“If you look at the 5,000 felony cases filed in Oakland County (Circuit) Court right now, over 10 percent of them are for possession of a simple controlled substance,” McMillen said, adding that felony impaired driving accounts for another 10 percent. “Then there’s possession with intent to deliver, then all of the property crimes. Very often, people will steal to support drug habits. So the total impact of drugs and alcohol on the criminal docket for the court, I’d say, conservatively, is about 75 percent. That’s 75 percent of all crimes are drug or alcohol related.”

Oakland County has a therapeutic drug court program too, and like 41-B, the rigorous program is designed to reduce recidivism by removing the criminogenic needs — that is to say, the factors that precipitate criminal behavior.

“We’re consistently monitoring, and we immediately assess a person and decide what are the appropriate interventions that will eliminate drug or alcohol addiction that will cause them to commit future crimes,” McMillen said.

Oakland County’s therapeutic drug court has worked closely with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals to craft a schedule that makes the program as effective as possible for participants.

In Macomb County, Hartman said she was pleased to report recently that the 41-B drug court program had an 80 percent success rate over the past year.

But in order to reap the benefits of recovery, there’s no need to stand in front of a judge. McMillen said not enough residents are aware that Oakland County, in particular, is “rich in resources” for finding recovery help, from the Oakland County Community Mental Health Authority to Common Ground Resource and Crisis Center and countless nonprofits in between.

Officers themselves are doing what they can to make sure police are viewed as a potential lifeline for those struggling with addiction issues.

“Michigan State Police started our Angel Program in Gaylord, and we’ve expanded to all 30 of our posts, so a person can walk into any state police post and get an angel assigned to them that will get them the help they need,” said MSP Lt. Mike Shaw.

FAN has made headlines over the past couple of years with a similar volunteer program that it launched called Hope Not Handcuffs, ensuring those with addiction issues can feel safe coming into a police station to get recovery help without being arrested for drug use.

But, of course, there are extenuating circumstances. Warrants for violent crimes, for instance, would exempt a person from that promised clemency.

“There’s a big misconception that we’re the ones who decide who gets charged — who’s guilty and who’s innocent. That’s not our job,” Shaw said. “We’re reporters of facts. We inform the prosecutor’s office what occurred out there, and they make the judgment to charge or not. Our job is to follow the letter of the law.”

But Shaw concedes that officers in many agencies know they’re not going to “arrest their way out” of the ongoing drug epidemic, and that’s changed how their day-to-day enforcement plays out. Each MSP patrol car has naloxone on board — that’s the opioid reversal drug — and all troopers are trained to use the overdose medication.

They’re also not just on the hunt for drunken drivers or black-market drug dealers. The effort to aid in Michigan’s collective addiction recovery has to be broad, reaching to the wolves in sheeps’ clothing.

Or in this case, doctors’ coats.

“Part of our drug enforcement strategy is to not only look at users but the doctors who are overprescribing or unlawfully getting pills on the streets,” Shaw said. “If we can nip the supply, the better off we all are.”