Part 2: The attraction of addiction

Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Barry County Associate Circuit Court Judge Johnnie Cox works on a case in his office at the Barry County Judicial Center. Melonie Roberts/

Drug Court aims to break negative habits, patterns

Barry County Associate Circuit Court Judge Johnnie Cox was working as the Barry County prosecuting attorney when Drug Court was first established in 2008.

“We were working to get one up and running in Barry County after I visited with Judge Alan Blankenship in Stone County and saw their Drug Court was being successful,” Cox said. “It was something we needed in Barry County. I talked to Judge Victor Head and we started the process of getting the pieces in place.”

As a prosecuting attorney, Cox saw a myriad of cases cross his desk, and knew many of those cases were due to actions stemming from addiction.

“We know that addiction is a disease,” Cox said. “It’s not an excuse for breaking the law, nor does it give people a free pass. With addiction, we can take steps to address the problem and not warehouse people [in jail] over and over. Don’t get me wrong. Some people need warehoused.

“A common phrase used by people who run these Drug Courts is, ‘You need to put the people you are afraid of in prison, and try to rehab the people you are just mad at.’ It’s a good way of looking at Drug Court in a lot of respects. Our goal is to get those who can be treated returned to society as employed, tax-paying citizens who take care of their families and other responsibilities.”

Since starting the Barry County Drug Court in 2008, the program has seen more than 85 participants graduate the 18-month program.

“We’ve seen a lot of success with Drug Court,” Cox said. “We’ve also had some who have gone back to using after graduation. Drug Court gives participants the tools to deal with their addictions for the rest of their lives. They will always be addicts. There is no guarantee they won’t relapse. But graduates know how to deal with their addictions.

“We’ve seen some graduates who have started using again, recognize the problem, and get back into the program and the support groups for peer support. That is one of the most important benefits of Drug Court — that group of supportive people who are not using that can help others through some of the rough spots. The graduates who don’t stay involved with those support groups are the ones most at risk.”

In a rural community, it is nearly impossible to associate with those living in a drug culture lifestyle, go into a rehabilitation program such as Drug Court, graduate, and return to the community with the assurance of never seeing those former acquaintances again.

“It’s difficult in rural or low population areas to stay in the town or county where you grew up. You still know all the same people. You know where to access your drug of choice. They always know where they can go use.”

Cox said in recent years, there has been an uptick in heroin use as a result of opiate abuse.

“Heroin is now cheaper to acquire than prescription-based opiates,” he said. “It is a direct and natural consequence of addiction to opioids. Both meth and heroin impact the central nervous system, with different effects on the brain.

“Lots of addicts are poly-substance abusers. They will get high off of whatever is available — meth, heroin, Xanax or pain meds.”

Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of addiction is how easily one can become hooked on prescription pain management medications.

“Some of our clients had no illicit drug experience until they became addicted to pain meds,” Cox said. “Some participants in our DWI Court, which we started a few years after Drug Court, are in the program not only because they have multiple offenses, but also an overall addiction issue with other substances.”

Addiction does not recognize social status or affluence.

“In our program, a majority of the folks that come through have a low income status, a spotty job history, unstable housing and their families in disarray,” Cox said. “We’ve also had some working professionals who have been at the same job for 20 years. Addiction reaches across the whole spectrum of society.”

Cox is grateful when Drug Court proves successful for the clients.

“The longer they are out, the greater chance they have of falling back,” he said. “That’s why peer support is so important. The most meaningful impact we see is when parents, grandparents, children and other family members come to graduation and you see those family relationships restored. I now see graduates at school functions and community events with their children, where in the past, they wouldn’t haver bothered to attend because they were too high, or maybe even didn’t remember the event. When you see them being responsible for their families, you see the success.”

Drug Court counselors not only address addiction issues, but try to change negative thought patterns, as well.

“We try to change their patterns of criminal thinking,” Cox said. “Once they realize the impact their actions have had on others, family members, community, neighbors, they are often ashamed and remorseful. However, if we can’t change that criminal thinking, it’s harder to determine if we have been successful.”

But, there is one measurement by which success can be determined.

“We’ve had 25 or 30 clean babies born to women in the program,” Cox said. “That’s been a good thing. Babies born testing positive for opiates or other drugs have to remain in the hospital until they are weaned off, or they go through withdrawal.”

Drug Court participants are tested randomly and frequently for illicit drug use. They are also required to attend self-help group sessions, meet with their probation and parole officer, attend individual counseling sessions and faithfully attend Drug Court meetings, all while holding down a job, meeting the needs of their families and pay for Drug Court services throughout the duration of their program.

But for many, it’s worth the cost.

“We have a society that sees a lot of commercials and believes there is a pill to fix everything,” Cox said. “That’s not the case.

“A big part of the judicial interaction with these clients is they have never had a judicial authority congratulate them on their success. Most of their interaction with the legal system has been negative. The whole purpose of Drug Court is to turn these circumstances around and help these individuals become successful members of the community. Drug Court works. And it is far more cost-effective than incarceration.”

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