Drug court grads, participants tell tales of success

“Drug courts are a wonderful first step for many people in recovery” - Richard Harris, Director of Addictions and Mental Health for Oregon DHS.

“Drug courts are a wonderful first step for many people in recovery” - Richard Harris, Director of Addictions and Mental Health for Oregon DHS.

The East Oregonian, May 16 2009

Though drug court has only been in Umatilla County for going on three years, the national drug court program celebrated its 20th birthday Friday. To mark it, drug courts across the country held graduations. In Umatilla County the next graduation isn’t until August, but the program celebrated with a presentation and reception at the Red Lion Friday morning.

Though officials like Drug Court Coordinator Roxann Fisk marked the statistical success of drug court – she said nationally 75 percent of graduates stay arrest-free in the first two years after drug court – what really tells of the program’s success are the participants and the graduates.

Five of those people spoke at the event Friday.

They told stories of where they were before drug court, where the program has taken them, at what they’ve done to succeed.

Drug court is a minimum year-long program that incorporates treatment, life skills and therapy as a diversion from prison or jail time. Drug court participants go through a four-phase process, each requiring more and more responsibility. They’re given weekly drug tests and are expected to get a job, get a permanent residence and are encouraged to join community organizations or work to get families back together.

Umatilla County has had 28 graduates since it started in July 2006. That number is expected to rise to 40 by the end of the year.

Participants and graduates say it’s been a tough process, but worth it.

Teri Brag said she started with drugs when she was 11 years old after being raised by a drug-addicted mother. When she got away from her mother, she lived with her father, who was an alcoholic. By the time she was 18 she had her first felony drug charge, Brag said. She spent time in and out of jail and treatment centers.

“None of this seemed to work,” she said. “I was running out of options.”

Greg Wheelhouse described himself as homeless and with no phone.

Zach Rodes said he felt angry all the time and like he was just chasing instant gratification.

“I was a miserable person,” he said.

Twyla Johnson said she was sitting in a jail cell, looking at a six-month sentence.

“I figured I could quit doing meth for a year if that’s all it took to get out of jail,” she said, “Then I would be free to go back to my way of life: Getting high, lying, stealing and doing whatever it took. That was my life.”

Terry Baird said he started doing drugs in 1970.

“They were the kind of drugs, a lot of them you’ve never heard,” he said. “The biggest problem I had was it took them 17 years to catch me.”

He served time in prison, but he started drug court when he faced going back to jail and possibly losing his family.

All these people said their lives have been changed through drug court. Baird and Wheelhouse graduated from the program, Rodes will finish on Monday, and Johnson and Brag are in the last part of the program and aim to graduate in August.

But they all said it took work, treatment and, for some, religion.

As Wheelhouse put it, “It’s not about just changing, it’s about changing everything.”

“I had no idea what I was in for,” Johnson said. She said it hasn’t been easy, and sometimes it’s been hard, like when she’s had relapses. But she learned from those mistakes.

“I never thought I would I would say, ‘I never want to get high again,'” Johnson said. “But now I say it daily.”

Rodes said drug court has taught him how to succeed in sobriety, take joy in life and see similarities between himself and others, instead of differences.

“I can say, ‘Hey, I’m good’ and mean it,” he said. “I’m happy in my life.”

Several people credited religion with helping them on their path to success.

“It came down to me praying, ‘God help me. I can’t do this alone,'” Wheelhouse said. “Today I really want to say there’s only one thing that has made me successful in this program, and that is God. …That’s what has made me a success.”

Brag, too, credited religion with helping her work through the program.

Though drug court can be tough, and getting through every day life can be tough, Baird said it’s a far better life than he led for 30 years of drug use.

“They day-to-day living, all that stuff we found so hard when we were getting high is really pretty easy compared to all the energy that’s expended in chasing a bag of dope, or making dope, or stealing the stuff to make it with, or dodging the cops, or finding a couch to sleep on, or breaking in to some house or a storage unit just so you had a place to try to sleep off long enough to wake up the next morning and go find some dope,” he said. “It’s a hell of a lot easier than living that lifestyle.”

EXTRA – 2009 Marks the 20th Anniversary of the First Drug Court in the Nation – Salem, Oregon
EXTRA – Drug Court grads praise program – Terra Haute, Indiana
EXTRA – Drug court graduates get new start – Hattiesburg, MS
EXTRA – Editorial: Kudos for Drug Court – Genesee County, Wyoming
EXTRA – Clark County Drug Court a catalyst to change lives – Las Vegas, Nevada
EXTRA – Drug Court Graduates Embark On A New Beginning – Mansfield, Ohio
EXTRA – Drug Court Welcomes More Than 400 Graduates – Vigo County, Indiana