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.

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Even its detractors have praised the program for exposing thousands of people to their first treatment experiences, and for provoking some very refreshing collaborations between previously adversarial government agencies. In Contra Costa County, for example, the Division of Alcohol and Other Drugs Services used to clash with the probation department — pushing for leniency in cases where probation stressed enforcement. With Prop. 36, the agencies formed cooperating units to oversee the progress of each client, and, to their delight, now find themselves thinking alike. "We found there would be this role reversal," says Lenny Williams, Prop. 36 program supervisor for the treatment agency. "Sometimes probation would see some redeeming qualities in a person that treatment was overlooking and say, 'Let's give this person another chance.' Sometimes we think probation is being a little too soft and we get more firm. It's a little dance, and we didn't expect it."

"What makes Proposition 36 so effective is our collaboration," concurs Ed Benton, Williams' counterpart in probation. The united front gives clients a bigger support network, they agree, and minimizes drug offenders' hitherto unchecked ability to play the agencies off of one another.

The key result, of course, is the treatment numbers. In five years, about 60,000 people have graduated from Prop. 36 treatment. Yet it's the majority who either drop out or fail to show up for treatment who motivated the recently passed revisions package. "Proposition 36 has done some good for a large number of people, but it's the other two-thirds of the people that we're concerned about," says state Senator Denise Ducheny, who carried the bill.

Since Prop. 36 accepts all eligible comers, it's hard to compare it directly to drug courts or other court programs that are more selective. But according to the UCLA researchers, studies of non Prop. 36 programs prior to 2001 showed treatment completion rates ranging from 32 to 55 percent. That puts Prop. 36 at the lower end of the range. The newer program has fared better in the East Bay, however, with completion rates running in the high 30s or low 40s, percentagewise. Some counties, including Alameda, now run it side by side with the drug courts, which handle offenders ineligible for Prop. 36.

For some Prop. 36 supporters, the treatment stats are less convincing than the anecdotal evidence that the program reaches long-term addicts. In a recent letter to colleagues, Contra Costa's Judge Hiramoto wrote: "I was a skeptic when I took over the Proposition 36 calendar in January of this year. I didn't understand it, and I didn't see much value in it. I felt there was an element of coddling drug addicts inherent in the program. It is, after all, taxpayer mandated and funded drug recovery."

Yet after seeing some profound turnarounds in her own court, she's a convert. "I do know this approach works," she says now. "I see it every week. It doesn't work for everyone, but I've seen it work, especially with some of the hard-core people." If anything, she says, Prop. 36 errs on the side of not being forgiving enough. "Three is not a magical number," she says of the proposition's "three strikes" rule. "If recovery is the goal, then there are people with more serious substance abuse problems who could be helped with more chances and will be lost under the current system."

Another frequent criticism of Prop. 36 is its street reputation as a "get out of jail free" card, which no doubt feeds the high attrition rate. Some offenders agree to it with no intention of getting clean. Others sign on, then walk out of the courthouse and never look back. "They've heard from their using friends that they won't be after you for a while, you have time," Williams says. "Well, for an addict, just give me another day, you know." And although a warrant goes out for their arrest, he adds, "that doesn't mean that they actually get picked up the next day. Some people have been on warrant status for a long time. We have drawers full of files of people who took Proposition 36, and all of the sudden then they're gone."

The program has also frustrated some cops and prosecutors. This summer, legal newspaper The Recorder reported that Alameda County prosecutors had stopped showing up at Hayward's Prop. 36 court; because the law limits their choices, and defendants aren't facing jail time, prosecutors found there was little for them to do. Nobody from the DA's office would comment on this issue, but Deputy DA Jeff Rubin brings up another Prop. 36 frustration: Prior to its passage, he says, a possession charge was a good way to get someone suspected of more serious crimes, such as dealing, into custody. "Often the crime they're arrested for is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. But now, he says, police officers are loath to make small-time drug arrests because they know the offenders will just take Prop. 36 and be back on the street the next day.

Possession was definitely just the tip of Colby Quinn's iceberg. He liked any drug that made him feel in control and fed his adrenaline jones. "For thirteen years, there wasn't a day that went by that I didn't use one or two or three different kinds of drugs," he says.

At age thirteen, Quinn began smoking and selling pot. He says his mom manufactured the rave drug GHB, so he used that, too, and helped her sell it. At seventeen, he says, his mom gave him his first shot of steroids to help bulk him up for football, and Quinn gave himself extra doses on the sly. Already burly and athletic, the steroids made him superaggressive; he remembers he and his brother throwing each other into walls and doors during arguments about videogames or whose turn it was to go to the store for candy. Yet the steroids paid off on the field. He played for Los Medanos College and aspired to join the Xtreme Football League.

But at 22, Quinn's knees gave out. He had a series of surgeries to remove the cartilage in his kneecaps and replace his ACL tendon. He smoked weed and took Vicodin to control the pain, but that made him too stoned to go to class. He gave up some scholarships, and realized a football career would be impossible. "The day I got home from the last surgery I got an acceptance letter to try out for the XFL, for the San Francisco Demons," he says. "I sent an application, but there was no way."

He tried working construction, but the pay just couldn't match what he could make dealing coke, the next drug to catch his fancy. "I just thought I was the shit — I was Mr. Drug Dealer," Quinn says wryly. "I had cars, I had motorcycles, I had my own place. People are your friends and they respect you because they want what you have." Quinn spent all his time partying, letting his friends and his brother crash with him and supplying them with drugs.

Then at 24 he tried meth, which became his express elevator to failure. The drug made him paranoid and delusional. He would sleep for days a time, napping out even in the middle of dealing, and wake up with no idea what had happened. His friends and customers took advantage of his disorientation, and stopped paying him. Soon he was supporting their habits as well as his own. Within about four months, he recalls, "it went from where I was selling drugs to all of a sudden I was buying drugs."


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