About 4,000 people gathered on Monday in a ballroom at the National Harbor in Maryland for the opening of the annual National Association of Drug Court Professionals conference. Among those in attendance were White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, Friends star Matthew Perry, officials in the U.S. drug court system, and former addicts.
The Obama administration has embraced the drug court system, which offers nonviolent drug offenders addiction treatment in lieu of jail sentences. The number of such courts skyrocketed in recent years, growing from a single court in 1989 to over 2,700 today. Advocates of the system, including the current administration, cite research that suggests that drug courts not only help more people beat addiction, but may also save taxpayer dollars with its unique policy of incentives not present in the normal penal system.
“More and more people are realizing that they can turn their lives around,” said Kerlikowske at the conference on Monday.
But critics remain staunchly opposed to the drug court system, as evidenced in the 2011 report “Drug Courts Are Not the Answer.” Ethan Nadelmann, founding executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which released the report, argued that drug courts only work if the addict is able to quit cold turkey—a feat that is generally understood to be extremely difficult. “Typically it’s the case that people relapse if addicted…and then somebody who only had a minor drug problem may start getting reincarcerated over and over again,” said Nadelmann.
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Still others maintain that drug courts are effective—but only when applied to individuals addicted to “hard” drugs, such as opiates or methamphetamines. “They are not effective for anyone who doesn’t believe that they have a drug problem—like the majority of marijuana users,” said Paul Zukerberg, a D.C. lawyer who represents marijuana defendants.
But for recovering addicts Albert Zweig, former heroin addict turned Denver district magistrate judge, and Matthew Perry, both of whom spoke on Monday, the value of the drug court system is undeniable. Though never a part of the drug court system himself, Perry has dedicated considerable time and effort advocating for the system over the last four years. “It saves lives, and it saves money,” he said, concluding, “the only ones who are diehard opponents are private prison operators.”