Take them to drug court
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 24, 2007

Last December, a Detroit newspaper reported how a convicted prostitute who had been drug free for a year and undergone job training relapsed and was re-apprehended. Tearfully, she admitted to the judge she “didn’t know how to deal with the pressure.” For the forty year old hooker, it may have been the first time anyone bothered to track her down much less compel her to keep her commitment to rehabilitate - but then this is how good drug courts work.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin recently commended them. Many offenders become involved with the law because they are mentally ill, addicted, or both, she said. Specialized courts, such as drug and mental-health courts, help ease the caseload.

Another benefit is how the accused must answer for his behaviour both as an addict and as an offender. Judge McLachlin didn’t mention this but her nod of approval is nonetheless timely. Developments in the United Kingdom raise anew concerns about the dangers of marijuana, that gateway drug par excellence, which could further burden the court’s caseload. Statistics from the NHS National Treatment Agency in London confirm soaring numbers of young people needing treatment for psychosis as a result of smoking cannabis that is 25 times stronger than 10 years ago. Shocked, the left-wing Independent newspaper headlined a virtual apology this week for having supported decriminalization.

Will Canada crack down? At a minimum, parents who believe the marijuana their kids are smoking is the same marijuana they smoked need a wakeup call. We need to get tough, too, in other ways, but as any criminologist will attest, Canada’s revolving-door criminal justice system is hardly the answer to this problem.

In the United States, drug courts have been siphoning non-violent offenders with addiction problems into disciplined rehabilitation programs since 1987. Today, hundreds - including driving-under-the-influence courts and at least one prostitution court - are in operation. Offenders must choose between rehabilitation or going to jail. In 2001, Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found drug courts provided the most effective controls on addicts’ criminality and drug use, and that the recidivism rate for those who completed the program was between 4 and 29%, compared with 48% for those who did not participate.

A recent report from the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS dismissed drug courts even though the Canadian version is still in its infancy. Established in Toronto in 1998 and followed by Vancouver in 2001, Edmonton acquired its drug treatment court in 2005 while Winnipeg, Ottawa and Regina followed suit in 2006. Yet despite increasing demand for such courts, harm reduction experiments receive all the attention. North America’s first safe injection site, Insite, located in Vancouver’s down town eastside, is one such example.

But like needle exchange programs, the provision of free crack pipes and, most recently, a Charter challenge that could decriminalise all aspects of prostitution, safe injection sites can’t resolve the paradox of claiming to reduce harm while encouraging the behaviour that causes harm in the first place. Worse, they raise the sordid spectre of one-stop shopping to facilitate the latest addiction du jour.

Given this twisted milieu of good intentions paving their inexorable way to a new kind of moral pathology, the ethical superiority and social benefits of drug courts can hardly be disputed. Not only do they hold offenders to account while they develop a sense of personal responsibility but for every dollar spent in drug courts ten are saved in incarceration costs.

Too good to be true? Perhaps.

Certainly the criminal justice system should not become another social program but drug courts are a breed apart. Unlike social workers, judges can stipulate jail sentences for slackers. Mostly, though, drug courts reassert the moral authority of the law which harm reduction and decriminalization projects thoroughly compromise.

That said, we can’t underestimate the crisis of authority their increasing use suggests. While drug courts are both symptom of and remedy for this crisis, they undeniably take the nanny or, rather, the ‘daddy’ state to new levels. Indeed, offenders who find their ‘inner authority’ under the guidance of judges comprise one of the bittersweet ironies of our time.

But better such models than no models and better late than never. If they had existed earlier in the offender’s life, he might never have toked up and she might never have become a prostitute.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century