For nearly three years, the Upper Arlington City Attorney's Office has sought to chip away at drug addiction through a program that provides criminal offenders opportunities to meet substance-abuse issues head on and build foundations for sober lives.

One day in May, five participants in a pilot drug-court program sat outside Upper Arlington City Council chambers in the city's Municipal Services Center, waiting to appear before Magistrate Janet Grubb, who presides as judge over the court, and Joe Roush, Upper Arlington's criminal-justice program administrator.

While residents and professionally dressed city workers moved about the building to tend to such issues as registering children for parks and recreation programs or submitting building permits, the five court participants -- ranging in age from 31 to 64 -- quietly discussed how they had run into trouble with Upper Arlington police.

All were forthcoming with the facts of their criminal cases.

To a person, they also expressed gratitude for the program, in part, because it kept them out of jail but more so for its help in breaking years-long cycles of addiction.

"I decided to go to drug court, and it was the best decision of my life," said Mya, a 31-year-old who was caught stealing from a local grocery store. "I could've been dead. I was dealing with the fentanyl and heroin every day. That's what I wanted.

"It really did actually save my life. You got to want to quit. At the time, I wanted to, but I didn't know how."

ThisWeek Upper Arlington News, at the request of Upper Arlington Drug Court officials, agreed to use only first names of participants on the premise that the program is voluntary and participants' sobriety is an ongoing challenge. Court officials said protecting participants' identities might help in their attempts to remain sober. The participants also agreed to speak with the newspaper on the condition that only their first names would be used.

Behind the program

The city of Upper Arlington established a pilot drug-court program in September 2016 as a response to the growing opioid epidemic in the community and across the region, but offenders with other substance abuse issues could qualify to participate in the program.

According to the city attorney's office, the court's mission is to provide management and treatment to misdemeanor defendants who commit crimes related to their drug addictions in an effort to recognize and correct their addictions. Participants have two years to complete the program and graduate if they have been clean for two years and receive no new criminal charges.

The first participants entered the court in November that year. Participants do not have to be residents of Upper Arlington but who have been arrested in the city.

"The program participants have to devote two years to complete the program," City Attorney Jeanine Hummer said. "When they graduate, it means they have been clean for two years, no new crimes and are committed to a change.

"It is a commitment to a new system of addressing crimes related to the drug problem. We had to change our way of thinking. Each graduate represents one less person committing crimes and using the criminal-justice system."

Almost three years later, the court remains a "pilot program."

"We have not permanently codified the program and remain in the evaluation phase," Hummer said.

Court sessions are held Wednesdays at the MSC and are designed to serve nonviolent, substance-abusing offenders and people who are noncompliant or are in violation of their probation.

Who's eligible?

Hummer and Roush typically identify people who have committed misdemeanors and whom they believe could benefit from the drug-court program. Participation is voluntary.

"You have to voluntarily commit yourself to the process," Roush said. "The benefit is, they can be looking at pleading to three counts of theft (as an example). So technically, they have a year and a half (of prison) over their heads.

"Drug court will allow them, upon successful completion, to come back and withdraw their plea," Roush said. "The judge can vacate the guilty finding and then they dismiss the case and then expunge it. So there's a payoff to being a success in this. You can actually clear their record."

Specific qualification criteria for the program include:

* Having a substance-abuse problem; being competent to stand trial; understanding the requirements of the program; having no history of drug trafficking; and not posing a threat or risk of harm to program staff or the community.

* Acknowledging having substance-abuse conditions that need treatment.

* Entering required guilty pleas to the charge(s). Appeal rights to the guilty pleas run from the date of conviction.

* Waiving appealing their cases to Franklin County Municipal Court for failure to complete the program.

Roush said the Upper Arlington drug court follows structures of similar courts already established in other municipalities, such as Franklin and Cuyahoga counties and the city of Columbus.

Whitehall established a drug court in August 2018, and Hilliard followed suit May 1.

Since its inception, Upper Arlington's drug court has had 13 participants and has cost $28,720.83. Those costs were $1,893.53 in an abbreviated 2016; $12,783.53 in 2017; $7,533.91 in 2018; and $6,509.64 in 2019.

Funding comes from the city's "special project fund," which is financed by court costs paid by defendants who appear in mayor's court.

To date, four people have completed the two-year requirements and graduated from the drug-court program. Roush said two more are on track to graduate by the end of this year.

"We did lose one person," he said. "I think that needs to be told. With all the victories, there are always going to be setbacks.

"The first guy who was supposed to graduate in late January, early February OD'd on fentanyl and died," Roush said. "He was sober for two years. I saw him three days before he died, 'dropped' him (by giving him a drug test) and he was clean.

"He was dead three days later. (On) Dec. 22 (2018), his mom found him face down from a fentanyl overdose. That was a gut punch there.

"Even with all the counseling this guy did, all his sober time, everything he did. I don't know what triggered him. He went back (to) using, and he died fairly quickly."

Road to recovery

Of the five participants who appeared for court May 22, four were in recovery for opiates, including heroin. The fifth, a 64-year-old man named Mike, had five months of sobriety from a crack-cocaine addiction he had developed in 1989.

"Since I got in here, I'm working full time now," Mike said. "I bought myself a little $200 car that runs like a champ.

"I own a house, and I'm finally getting it to where I can move back into it. I've got the plumbing fixed in the house, I've got my water bill paid. I was living at a friend's house because the water wasn't on. All the money I got was for crack cocaine.

"This program's really blessed me. Joe's really great. You can tell he really cares."

Those with opiate addictions receive "medically assisted" treatment while completing Upper Arlington's drug-court requirements. They're given Vivitrol, a shot administered once a month that blocks the effects of opiates, or Suboxone, a medication that reduces opiate urges and helps reverse their effects.

According to Roush, the cost of Vivitrol and Suboxone are covered by either the participant's insurance or by a grant to Southeast Healthcare Services from the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County. He added that part of the program is to make sure participants have or get some type of insurance.

Southeast Healthcare Services is an agency providing services to those with mental-health, chemical-dependency, health-care and homelessness issues. They assist the drug court with administration of those medications and treatment plans for drug-court participants.

How long the individual remains on the medication is on a case-by-case basis, Roush said.

"As to how long the participants stay on the (medicines), that is usually up to the counselors, in consolations with the probation (department) and the judge," he said.

Roush said the typical recommended plan for Vivitrol would be a year to 18 months, and the use of Suboxone can continue until the individual "can be weaned off under-controlled substances."

The four opiate users at court May 22 credited the doses of Vivitrol with helping to start them on a road to recovery.

In addition to those treatments, drug-court participants must regularly attend meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, and they could be called to take a drug test at any time.

"We sit down and we have a treatment-team meeting," Roush said. "The people in the program, I meet with them basically every week, whether it's personally in my office or meeting with them in drug court.

"These people are going to be in recovery for the rest of their lives in some shape or form."

The program also seeks to help place participants in sober environments and works with them to obtain jobs.

The participants

Phillip, 59, said he entered the program after someone had promised him a gram of heroin if he would pass counterfeit money at a local store and get change for it.

When the plan failed and he was arrested attempting to pass counterfeit money, he was facing 30 days in jail.

"I could do that (30 days in jail) standing on my head," Phillip said. "This is more like enforcing where I'm at, keeping me straight. I wanted to stop using. I didn't know what to do, who to go to."

As of May 22, Phillip said, he'd been sober for 93 days. By Aug. 21, that number almost doubled to 184. He was grateful for the help the drug-court program had given him and said it's providing tools for him to stay clean after graduation.

"I've OD'd numerous times," he said. "I don't want to die with someone standing over my casket saying, 'Damn, he didn't get it right.' I got two daughters, you know, that care about me. My mom, she cares about me. My brothers and sisters, they care about me.

"I've quit. It's a blessing, and it's sad that people don't know there's help out there. I have to build a good foundation. If I don't have that foundation, I'm going to fall into it. I'm going to go back to square one."

Amber, a 31-year-old mother fighting an addiction to heroin, hopes to graduate from drug court in November. She's working at a thrift store and seeking to regain parental rights after a theft charge filed by a local beauty salon put her in line for the drug-court program.

She said her struggle with drugs previously landed her in prison.

The program won't clear her past, she said, but she hopes it will provide her a promising future.

"Really, them expunging misdemeanors is not going to help me out any," she said. "I wanted to quit. So I'm glad I did it.

"I'm on the Vivitrol shot. It's helped me out a lot."

Likewise, Jason, 37, had been using opiates for 16 or 17 years and had been homeless for six or seven years before a theft charge filed by a local grocery store made him a qualifier for the drug court.

In order to get the drugs out of his system so he could get a Vivitrol shot and begin his recovery, Jason asked to be put in "the workhouse," the Franklin County jail, 2460 Jackson Pike in Columbus.

Now sober a year -- something Roush admits he would have bet against happening -- Jason has a landscaping job and proudly told Roush and Grubb about treating his mother to lunch.

"That actually was unexpected," Jason said. "She was like, 'Hey, how you doing? You want to meet up for lunch?' I was like, 'Yeah, let's go. I'll buy.' That was also a change.

"She wasn't in contact with me for a while, and it was obvious why."

Jason said he's happier now that he's clean and working. His goal has been to have his own residence.

"I've had worse jobs," he said. "It's not bad. It's good when your boss actually isn't afraid of coming into work with you.

"He's very laid-back. He's very appreciative of punctuality."

During Jason's court appearance, Grubb lauded him for his continued progress, and Roush credited him for his honesty and ongoing work to become a productive member of society, although one who still needs to keep up with treatments, meetings and to get a bank account.

Similarly, at Mya's hearing, Grubb checked in on her emotional and physical states, knowing that Mya is working, living in a sober environment and is interested in becoming a mother again.

"We just want you to take care of yourself," Grubb said. "We're just concerned."

Mya responded that she's going to meetings and using church and the Bible to help keep her on the right path.

As of Aug. 21, all five participants interviewed for this article remained in the program and on schedule to graduate.

Program 'very effective'

Roush said at least six people identified as eligible for the drug-court program declined to participate.

"In relative terms," he said, the program has been "very effective."

"It gives people, addicts, the opportunity to get their lives back and set down a foundation for the future," Roush said. "We give them every opportunity to succeed. It's up to them to take advantage of the opportunity.

"Everyone struggles in the program -- everyone. Their successes are theirs and at their own pace, with strong prodding from the court and myself to stay on track and make progress, of course

"If one person gets their life back and under control, that's a lot of money and resources that don't have to be expended on them; the community is better off for it, and the court system is a little less stretched thin. They are not a burden on society, they return to (being) productive, participating and contributing members of society."

Grubb agreed, saying as long as people are in the program and medically supported, "it seems to be pretty successful."

She acknowledged there are relapses but said they come with the territory of addiction, even for those who desperately want to quit.

"Once you're a drug addict or an alcoholic, you are that for the rest of your life," Grubb said. "Accessing 12-step meetings and peer support, medical support, whatever, is what you need to do to stay healthy. You can't just decide, 'I'm not an addict anymore. I'm just going to rejoin the general population that isn't.' That's not how it works.

"It's like diabetes or heart disease or any other illness that is a lifelong illness that requires maintenance. We try to drive that home."

Although there is "no getting over" addiction, Grubb said, the drug-court program seeks to instill in participants that they're more apt to keep their sanity, jobs and families if they work the treatment steps and steer clear of drugs and alcohol.

"That, a lot of times, is contingent upon a lifetime of hard work," Grubb said. "There is nobody that should receive more respect and more plaudits than somebody that has recognized their problem -- knew they were an alcoholic or an addict -- and maintained lifetime sobriety. It's a hard row to hoe."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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