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.

A woman with a ravaged face, still pretty beneath the pockmarks, is kneeling in the gallery of a Martinez courtroom, peeling away her blouse to display deep purple bruises covering her skinny, tattooed arms and stomach. Last night her car was hit by a drunk driver.

“I should have been killed, if it wasn’t for the airbag,” she whispers, so as not to disturb the court session. Bert Gabriel, her brassy-haired, grandmotherly case manager, dispassionately surveys her client’s mottled arms. Gabriel knows that for this woman to be in court today, she had to survive a lot more than a car crash — she had to overcome a twenty-year heroin habit. Nevertheless, today she’s sober and ready to graduate from Proposition 36.

It’s been five years since the highly experimental ballot initiative went into effect, and long-shot recovery processes like this one began to unfold across the state. Under Prop. 36, judges must let nonviolent drug offenders choose treatment as an alternative to jail time. It’s administered differently county by county, but generally works as it does in this Contra Costa County courtroom: People who choose treatment are assigned a case manager, a probation officer, and a treatment program, and must report to all three. If they complete treatment and probation, their charges may be expunged. If they mess up — skipping meetings, testing dirty, going AWOL — they can be arrested and sent back to court. Three violations mean they’re booted from the program and must serve their time behind bars. “Very rarely do we see somebody zoom right on through” without accruing any violations, Gabriel says.

Judge Joni Hiramoto seems to be thinking along these lines when the woman with the bruises steps up to be congratulated. “I remember I gave you a last chance,” the judge recalls.

“You gave me more than one,” the woman says humbly.

The judge softens. “You were a good person for me to give more than one chance to,” she says.

“Way to go,” Gabriel mouths from the back of the room.

But while several Prop. 36 clients graduate today, others are warned they’re running out of chances. Then there’s the woman with the fuzzy blonde hair and scrunched face, clinging to the window slats of “the box,” a Plexiglas holding chamber for defendants in custody. Gabriel and her colleagues had lined up treatment for her three times, but she’d always disappeared, so today she officially bombs out of the program. The judge gives her 180 days in county jail, and two more years of court probation. The woman seems neither surprised nor upset to be heading back to jail.

It’s this disparity of outcomes that has fueled a recent dust-up over whether the experiment is working or is in need of tough-love reforms. Its supporters and critics agree it has reduced drug-related incarcerations, saving taxpayers money — as much as $1.3 billion by some estimates — and has exposed an unprecedented number of drug offenders to treatment, roughly 175,000 so far, many for the first time. Yet experts remain deeply divided over how to interpret the program’s attrition rate. Only about two-thirds of the people who accept Prop. 36 in court ever show up for treatment, and of those, only a third complete it.

This seemingly high drop-out rate may be due in part to the fact that Prop. 36 was created with lightweight users in mind, but ended up serving a much more hard-core population than its backers anticipated. Furthermore, drug offenders, hardly a population known for keeping appointments, are responsible for getting themselves from courtroom to clinic. Finally, addiction, by its very nature, is a chronic, relapsing condition. Prop. 36’s supporters say a one-third completion rate is typical for rehab. What’s most important, they say, is that the measure gives all low-level drug offenders access to court-ordered treatment. The initiative’s critics, however, complain that Prop. 36 is all carrot and no stick.

The California legislature recently agreed, and this past July, days after the initiative’s fifth anniversary, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a revisions package that, among other changes, lets judges impose short jail sentences for treatment violations, theoretically motivating addicts to comply with treatment. The initiative’s supporters have fought back fiercely. Led by the Berkeley office of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nonprofit that crafted Prop. 36, they say so-called “flash incarceration” violates the no-jail-time promise Californians voted for, and will only stymie addicts struggling toward recovery. The day after the bill became law, the group won a temporary restraining order blocking it.

On September 14, an Alameda County Superior Court judge will decide whether the experiment will continue as it began.

Supporters and detractors of Prop. 36 tend to start from the same premise: Without treatment, addicts trudge endlessly through the legal system’s revolving door.

The initiative originated in the late ’90s when coauthor Daniel Abrahamson, who directs legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, was looking for a way to quell the prison incarceration rate for drug offenses, which quadrupled between 1988 and 2000. In the ’90s, California went on a prison-building binge, with 21 new facilities. But while locking people up and busting street-corner dealers made it look as if the government was winning the war on drugs, Abrahamson believed it was merely going after an easy target while ignoring the larger problem. “It’s a vicious cycle of people having untreated substance abuse problems, getting arrested and sent to jail or prison, and coming out worse than they went in,” he says. “Nobody was asking the harder questions: ‘Should we be doing this in the first place? What’s the longer-term consequences?'”

Among the most obvious consequences was the price tag. It costs roughly $34,000 a year to lock up someone in California, more than a year’s tuition at Harvard. Abrahamson says it costs about $3,300 to provide a course of drug treatment.

Then there was the issue of how incarceration affects people’s lives. “It’s sort of like a social death,” Abrahamson says — it separates families, keeps people from working, and if jailhouse treatment isn’t available, prison can exacerbate addiction or the mental health problems that may accompany it. Afterwards, people convicted of drug-rela7ted felonies may have difficulty finding work, or become ineligible for federal welfare, housing, and college programs. Arguably, such restrictions propel offenders back toward drugs and crime.

Abrahamson’s vision was to shift resources from jails and criminal justice into community-based treatment, since getting people off drugs would be a cheaper and longer-lasting solution to drug crime. The idea wasn’t totally new — Arizona passed a similar ballot initiative in 1996 — but it was still relatively untested. Abrahamson and his colleagues didn’t think the governor would buy their proposal, so they instead targeted the November 2000 ballot. It took them nearly sixty drafts to nail down the specifics: The program would be offered only to nonviolent drug offenders (usually people popped for possession) who had served no time for three-strikes-type crimes within the prior five years. It would authorize up to one year of treatment and six months of follow-up, and since relapses are to be expected, participants would get three chances to get clean. Treatment providers were to respond to relapses by stepping up the intensity of treatment or offering time in detox programs.

But the authors were blindsided when their fiercest opposition came not from cops or prison guards, but from an institution they’d considered a natural ally: the drug courts.

If Abrahamson has a local rival on the Prop. 36 question, she’d be Judge Peggy Hora. In the 1990s, Hora led the campaign to establish drug courts, the legal model that preceded Prop. 36 in many counties, including Alameda and Contra Costa. She, too, was tired of seeing drug addicts stuck in the revolving door. After being elected to the bench in 1984, she says, “I spent my first year doing what I thought I was supposed to do, which was sending people to jail. I’d tell them, ‘Don’t use drugs anymore,’ or ‘Don’t use alcohol,’ and much to my surprise, they came back drinking and using.”

Hora took classes on chemical dependency, and came to see addiction as a chronic medical condition rather than a moral failing a judge’s admonition might fix. “I started saying, ‘Holy mackerel, I can spend the next twenty years of my life engaging in futile acts or try to make some changes around here,'” she recalls.

Drug courts were conceived as a humane alternative to straight punishment in which judges work intensively with drug offenders, shepherding them through rehab and offering them other services like job training and mental health care. In return, charges may be reduced or dismissed. Hora chaired the committee that established Alameda County’s drug courts in 1991 — the state’s first and the nation’s second — and ran the Hayward branch from 1998 until her retirement this year.

Despite their similar goals, the drug courts and Prop. 36 differ on crucial details. Drug court judges can react immediately to treatment infractions with sanctions including fines, community service, and jail time. They also act as the central figure overseeing an individual’s progress, whereas most decisions under Prop. 36 are made by treatment providers. And while drug courts can take in a wider range of offenders than Prop. 36, their reach is much smaller. Not all counties have one; in California, adult criminal drug courts serve an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 drug offenders annually. Prop. 36 is available statewide and serves about 36,000.

From the beginning, Hora and others argued that the new measure would displace a working system with a much weaker one. They worried that the promise of no jail time would strip judges of leverage needed to keep people in treatment. Without that proverbial stick, they argued, it could take a long time to get AWOL drug offenders back into the program, undercutting their shot at sobriety. “We know the longer you can keep someone in treatment, the better off they’ll be,” Hora says. “You don’t give them a chance to spiral out of control — you snap them back immediately and say, ‘What’s going on?'”

She also feared the measure would lessen judges’ flexibility; for example, banning people from the program after three failures would hamstring judges inclined to be lenient. “How can people who consider themselves progressive adopt a three-strikes scheme?” Hora demands. “You know how many strikes people get in drug court? Damn near as many as they need.”

But Prop. 36’s creators felt the courts didn’t go far enough. “The two problems that we have with the drug courts is that they were thinking small, county by county,” says coauthor Dave Fratello, a consultant to the Drug Policy Alliance. “They never tried to implement a huge statewide system. And because they grew out of collaboration with prosecutors and cops and they are themselves mostly judges, they’re still stuck in a punishment mind-set when push comes to shove.”

The public seemed to agree. Prop. 36 passed with 61 percent of the vote, and in July 2001, the grand experiment got under way.

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.

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.”

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.”

In addition to these points, the Drug Policy Alliance successfully argued in July that the revision package is unconstitutional because without voter approval, it amends the ballot initiative in a way not “consistent with its purpose.” But the clock is ticking on the group’s temporary restraining order. Next week, a local court is expected either to lift the order, enabling the revisions to take effect, or issue an injunction that further delays SB 1137, a decision that would likely propel the case into the state superior court.

The prospect of short-term incarcerations has elicited a wait-and-see approach from local Prop. 36 providers. “We’re open to seeing how that works,” muses Lenny Williams of Contra Costa County’s program. “Some people are pretty recalcitrant and need to know that authority exists and will respond to it. We’re dealing with some pretty hard-core people here.”

However, Gary Spicer, who until recently oversaw Alameda County’s program, cautions that people who already have experienced jail are often completely inured to the threat. “We have to be careful about seeing that as the resolution to reducing attrition rates and seeing that as a motivation that’s always going to work, because historically it didn’t do anything,” he says. “We’ve been jailing people a really, really long time and yet we didn’t seem to be making big strides in the national war on drugs.”

The individual war on drugs, however, is fought here, at a table in a plain, fluorescently lit back room of the New Connections treatment center in Concord, around which are seated Gabriel, deputy probation officer Ron Pearson, and treatment counselors George Chinn and Don Taylor.

This is the Recovery Gateway Unit, where the Prop. 36 team assesses the progress of its clients. The group compares notes: Who’s causing trouble, who’s testing dirty. They have an easy camaraderie, and when clients come in, the team members fluidly trade between good cop and bad cop roles. Maybe a client can fool one of them, but all of them? No way, they say. Plus, it’s hard to trick the pile of foil-wrapped urinalysis tests lying ominously in the middle of the table.

Today they have a new client, a lanky, sunburned guy with a wispy goatee and giant ears. He says he wants to go into detox tonight and that he’s ready to kick meth because his life is going downhill. He was injured at work, he explains, and some of his equipment was stolen. “I’m on the edge,” he pleads.

“If we were to test you tonight, would you test clean?” Gabriel asks.

“The last time I used was a week ago, so I believe so. Although,” he says slowly, “maybe for marijuana.”

Chinn raises an eyebrow. “Marijuana is not a drug to you?”

“No,” the guy says, not catching the warning sign.

Everyone in the room wants to put this guy in detox. But they know he’s lying. He’s admitting to something small to cover up something big. He’s way too jumpy for someone who hasn’t used meth recently. Until he can be honest with them, they feel they can’t really help him.

Without even having to discuss it, the group makes a unanimous decision: They tell him he’ll have to test, then park him out on the lobby couch to sweat about it.

In the meantime, they minister to a parade of others: There’s the guy who skipped his urine tests for a month, and gets a stern scolding from Gabriel and Pearson, followed by some encouragement from Chinn and Taylor. There’s the guy covered in a contagious full-body rash, for whom they somehow develop a treatment plan that will prevent physical contact with other clients. There’s the guy with the gigantic White Power tattoos who blushes demurely while Gabriel hands him his completion certificate and everyone claps.

Then they bring the reluctant new client back from the lobby.

“I did take some painkillers that I neglected to tell you about,” he admits right away. “My girlfriend gave them to me because my shoulder is blown out. And I took meth a week ago, so it could come up.”

“Not really,” Chinn says. “You’re just prepping us in case it does.” He explains to the man that the drug would have left his system days ago. The group tells him, however, that if he tests, it will distinguish between prescription painkillers and street drugs.

Finally the guy crumbles: It’s only been a few days, he admits. “Can I get into a detox bed tonight?”

Taylor looks at him with a kindly expression. “Thank you for your honesty,” he says. “Now we’ll be able to help you the best way. Go into detox.”

“And get some rest,” Gabriel says sympathetically. She says a bed will be ready for him if he can get to Richmond by 8 p.m. At his request, she even notifies his girlfriend.

But now that a plan is in motion, the man seems uncomfortable. He says maybe he can’t make it in time, even though he has two hours to make a thirty-minute drive. Maybe stuff will be stolen from his truck if he has to park there overnight. Maybe he’s too low on gas.

“Are you trying to talk your way out of this?” Chinn asks.

“No, I’m just saying I’ll have to stop and get some gas,” he insists.

Another telepathic moment. The team has seen this before — people on the cusp, torn between a desire to get clean and the physical craving that could make them another no-show. They try to buck him up a little, praising his honesty and his smart decision-making.

Once he’s gone, Chinn murmurs, “I sensed he was bagging out a little.”

“Let’s be realistic — it’s a voluntary program,” Pearson says. “Between the time he left and 8 p.m., a number of things could happen. He could call the girlfriend again, and maybe she’s using. Maybe he’ll say, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow, but not today.'”

There’s nothing to do now but wait. That’s the twist to the Prop. 36 experiment: It gives people a choice. And when you do that, anything can happen.

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