To a Speedy Recovery 

Prop. 36 has driven thousands of hard-core drug addicts away from prison and into treatment, but backers worry that recent changes to the program could stifle its success.

Page 3 of 7

By that time, Terri Gengras' meth addiction had begun to wear her down. The tiny, fast-talking woman with pale green eyes had used the drug daily since age fourteen, starting one weekend when she ran away from her west Pittsburg home to hang out with what she now calls the wrong crowd. "They had offered it to me numbers of times and I had turned it down every time," she says. "Then finally one day I was like, 'You know what? Screw it. I want to try it.' I smoked it and I knew right there that I was in trouble."

Gengras never finished high school. She never really worked. Her boyfriends supported her and supplied her with drugs. She was a gaunt 105 pounds, but felt gorgeous. She loved being part of the secret meth in-crowd that was burgeoning as the drug swept Contra Costa County. "It gives you a sense of belonging," she says. "We always had someone to lean on because it's such a large clique that you always feel welcome. In a weird sense, you feel superiority to some of them because you haven't stooped to the level that they have to get their drugs."

By the time Gengras was twenty, she was dealing. She liked the danger of making deliveries, of feeling like an outlaw. She did 444 days in jail in two years without breaking her stride. "It was a vacation," she recalls. "It was an opportunity for me to clean up, get some sleep, get some weight on, before I started the next run. You ran into all the old friends that you haven't seen in months because they've been in jail. I mean, it was kind of reunion-ish, almost."

Jail didn't dampen her habit at all. "As soon as I got out, before I left the parking lot, I was getting high again," she says. "I would have one of my drug friends come pick me up and that would be that."

She became pregnant with twins about the time Prop. 36 passed. Then 26, Gengras made an effort to clean up, ratcheting down her use to just weed. She married her kids' father and moved out of town. Yet once the twins were born, she returned to her speed habit. "It was really rough," she says. "I ended up leaving my husband and trying to survive, living in motels and everything, selling drugs, still with my children."

This time Gengras wasn't enjoying it. As a parent, she tried to hold down a job, and didn't want to go back to jail. Her drug use had left her emotionally numb, and she felt guilty for being "absent even when I was right there" with her kids. The outlaw life had lost its luster. "You get sick and tired of running," she says. "You get sick and tired of looking over your shoulder watching for cops." So next time she got arrested, the court offered her Prop. 36 and Gengras accepted, even though she had no real intention of getting clean. "It was just another avenue for me to stay out of jail, some other way for me to scam the system," she says.

During her first six weeks at a Concord outpatient treatment center, Gengras used meth daily. But somewhere along the way, the system got to her. Or perhaps Bert Gabriel did. As case manager for all the Prop. 36 clients in central Contra Costa County, Gabriel, a sort of taskmaster-slash-benevolent parent figure, is with them their entire journey, from their first day in court until she hands them their completion certificate. She is blunt and warily observant, yet retains the friendly warmth of the waitress she had been until, as she says, "my legs gave out and I needed to do something to do with my head." She's used to seeing people resist the way Gengras did, but knows if she can keep them in the program, they still have a shot.

For Gengras, knowing that Gabriel and her probation officer were watching killed her high. She'd use, but then she'd rat herself out rather than get caught with a dirty test. "I would call them and tell them, 'Listen, I can't stay clean. I just got high and I've got class in an hour, what do I do?'" she recalls. "They would tell me, 'Go to class, do what you've gotta do. Keep attending, Terri.'"

So she did. When Gengras realized she couldn't stay clean in her own apartment, where other users hung out, Gabriel got her into a residential program. Gengras hated it: getting up at the crack of dawn, doing chores, being told when to eat. But it worked.

Now 31 and clean since December, Gengras actually enjoys sticking to a simple routine: Get up, go to work, go home, watch TV, go to bed early, attend sobriety meetings on weekends. She stays with a friend from work, and has cut most ties with her previous life. She sees her kids, who now live with her mother, every other weekend, and is hoping to reunite with them by year's end. She's getting used to sobriety's quirks, such as having to exercise now that meth no longer keeps the pounds off. "It's kind of weird," she muses. "You trade in your drugs for cigarettes and coffee." She still calls Gabriel all the time to check in. "Hi," she'll say, "it's your favorite dope fiend."

Looking back at her Prop. 36 experience, Gengras says there was no magic bullet. "It was just the right time," she says. "There's absolutely nothing in the world that will make a user think that it's time to quit unless they are ready to." But for her, the program's value was that it was there when she needed it, like the answer to a question she hadn't asked. "There is not a chance I would have got clean if I wouldn't have gotten busted and given the opportunity to find another life," she says.

Prop. 36 may have been envisioned as drug diversion for small-timers, but Terri Gengras' seventeen-year habit turned out to be "pretty darn representative," Gabriel says, of the much older, more severely addicted crowd the initiative has served. The typical client would be a white male meth addict in his mid-thirties who has never been in treatment. More than half of the people who sign up have used drugs for at least a decade; a quarter for at least twenty years.

Given the tough customers, backers insist Prop. 36 has delivered on its promise to voters: From 2000 to 2005, the number of people in California prisons for drug offenses dropped by one-third, even as it increased in every other crime category. The program has saved $1.3 billion, the Drug Policy Alliance estimates, $500 million of that from the state's having scrapped plans for yet another prison. A UCLA study commissioned by the state concluded that Prop. 36 saves taxpayers $2.50 for every $1 invested.


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