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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The change was devastating. "Being a drug user, you're scraping together every last little bit you can to get whatever you can all the time," he says. "As soon as you're out, you're wondering how you're going to get your next one, and then you do whatever you have to do to get it."

And Quinn did. He robbed people. He beat up customers who owed him money. He beat up other drug dealers. He stole cars. He spent the better part of two years in jail, on and off. And the meth made him a sloppy criminal. "I fell asleep stealing a Cadillac from some guy's home, right underneath the car," he remembers. "My use became more and more, and I can't even really tell you how it got out of control; it just did. Everything was gone. Then my friends were gone."

So was his brother, his best friend in the world, who'd gotten clean and cut off ties with users as part of his recovery. Quinn teetered on the edge, unsure of what he wanted. He'd taken a few stabs at sobriety, but hadn't lasted long in any program. He fantasized about ending his life with an overdose. Then, finally, he got the possession bust that made him eligible for Prop. 36. His choice was treatment or three years in San Quentin.

He took treatment.

At first, Quinn resisted change. He was belligerent, convinced he could quit meth if they'd just let him smoke weed, or maybe if he could just go get his head cleared out on his grandpa's farm. "The reality of it was I wasn't done using," he says. "My life hadn't hit, as they say in the program, the bottom." So he kept testing dirty. "I'd get a violation," he says, "so I'd disappear for a few months until they'd catch me again. Then I'd come back and Bert and George [Chinn, his treatment counselor] would be there and say, 'You know, we think he can change. We really believe in him,' and they'd get me out.'

"That was when it really affected me, when I decided I wanted to get right, because they were backing me, they actually wanted me," he continues. "I stopped stealing cars; I stopped robbing people. I just kind of became a drug user, and it was harder for me to feed my addiction because I felt guilty every single time I'd think to do something like that. There'd be times where I'd go out to steal cars and I couldn't do it. I was telling people, 'I don't got it in me no more.'"

It took Quinn nearly a year and a half to complete Prop. 36, and although he technically accrued only two treatment violations, he says he deserved several more. Ultimately, he agreed to residential treatment.

Now 27, and clean for seven months, Quinn lives with a group of recovered addicts in Martinez, does some construction work, and is trying to help his girlfriend through her own recovery. He's gotten rid of everything that reminds him of his past — the stolen stuff, the tweaker friends — but he wishes he could forget the phone numbers of his old hookups. Quinn says he's relieved to have completed Prop. 36 when he did, because this new "flash incarceration" stuff worries him. He mostly remembers jail as a good place to pick up tips about how to cook meth and steal cars. "I don't see jail as rehabilitation," he says.

The people behind SB 1137, the Prop. 36 revisions package, don't see jail as rehabilitation either, but as leverage to help steer people to sobriety. The law also would boost treatment time to 24 months and expand some eligibility requirements, but its main, most controversial provision is allowing two days in jail for a client's first treatment violation, five days for the second.

If the courts let the law take effect, jail would still be a last resort, after the judge has considered lesser sanctions such as fines or community service, and only if it won't cause drug offenders to lose their jobs or ability to pay child support, or disrupt ongoing treatment or methadone therapy.

Stephen Manley, the Santa Clara County judge who cochaired the committee behind SB 1137, views the threat of jail as a realistic way to deal with addicts who live in the moment, are used to manipulating the system, and aren't concerned about long-term consequences. "The people who wrote the proposition don't seem to understand that you've got to get an addict's attention," he says. "You have to coerce them into doing something they don't want to do. Forty-eight hours or longer in jail is not something so drastic that it ruins a person's life or destroys their belief that they can do better. What it does is act as a wake-up call that they'd better start taking things seriously, or they face severe consequences."

The Drug Policy Alliance argues that, by penalizing relapses, which are a normal part of the recovery process, SB 1137 undercuts the main premise of Prop. 36: that addiction is a medical problem, not a criminal one. "Ask a doctor if they would ever use jail to enhance patients' compliance with treatment for asthma, for diabetes, for heart disease," says coauthor Fratello. "These are other chronically relapsing conditions where you have patients who frequently don't do what they are supposed to do."

Even a short jail sentence can harm recovery, according to Prop. 36 proponents. It's discouraging; it can disrupt a person's drug treatment, job, and family life. Besides, Abrahamson notes, "There is no such thing as a drug-free jail in California."


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