The opioid crisis in America: inside a drug court
More Americans are killed by drug overdoses than by guns and cars. The FT was given access to a drug court programme that helps addicts clean up and rejoin society. Ben Marino reports.
Produced and edited by Ben Marino, filmed by Greg Bobillot
You know, it was so easy back then to just get a script. You can go in there and say, oh, I have back pain. Once those painkillers, 30 milligrammes of oxycodone, $30, when you can get a bag of dope, heroin, for $5.
The heroin on the street right now, the heroin that I've seen people test positive for, is lethal. It's about almost keeping people alive. There's no room for error.
My son, whom I miss a whole lot, and it is hard to talk about and I'm still grieving, there's a lot of pain. It is something that is really tearing the fibre of our community apart.
This is what America's worst drug crisis looks like. The scenes that play out in this mandatory drug court tell the story of a prescription drug epidemic out of control. More people are killed by drugs every year than they are by guns or cars. Overdose rates have shot up as a crisis mutated, with addicts switching from prescription opiates to heroin, often cut with deadly chemicals.
Our cameras were given access to the Mercer County drug court in New Jersey. Drug rehab is subsidised by the state and jailing addicts is a last resort.
My name is Timothy Lydon. I'm a judge of the Superior Court in New Jersey, specifically in the criminal part. One of the things I do is I'm also the drug court judge for Mercer County.
And essentially, what drug court is, it's an intensive period of probation where the individual is supervised for a period of up to five years. They're offered a number of services. They're actually required to go into treatment. The kind of people who go into drug court are typically non-violent offenders, people who have a moderate or severe substance use disorder.
We've got Trenton, which is a very urban area. And we have Princeton, which is a very wealthy area. So the people who are in the programme come really from all walks of life.
So if you graduate from drug court and you have certain offences in your record and you've committed certain crimes coming into drug court, you essentially have your record wiped out. And it's fairly new. I've expunged some people's records. But once in a while I have somebody come back. And the first person, he came back and - after I expunged his record - and he said, judge, the expungement worked. I just got a place for my family that I never could have gotten before because of my record.
It's encouraging. It's rewarding. It's incentivising good behaviour. It's incentivising progress.
I remember when you go in, you had the weight of the world on your shoulders, you were worried about your aunt. I know you waited a long time to get that job. I think the fact you're getting it back speaks volumes about you. It's wonderful to have you back. If you'd like, why don't you pick something off the table?
You could come up here and get it.
Recognising when people are doing well, when they're meeting their obligations, when they're moving to the next phase of the programme, it really makes a difference. You look at the research, and people improve. It makes a huge impact on people, as opposed to always using the threat of incarceration, the threat of punishment.
My name is Hector Lopez. I'm 23 years old, from Lawrenceville, New Jersey. I've been on drug court for about seven, eight months. And it's been definitely helping me change my life for the better.
The judge has known me since I've been 18. I'm 23 now. So he's seen my previous court cases. That's been my only judge since I've been 18. So he knows me.
He wants to actually see you rehabilitate and not just be punished. Like jail is a last option for him. He wants to do everything possible before he has to watch you go to jail. Because when you go to jail, it's not rehabilitation. You can go out - you can go in jail a certain way and come out worse. And I've seen it happen before with certain people.
Today there are more than 3,000 drug courts across the US. In New Jersey alone, 20,000 people have enrolled since 2002. By the time they graduate, 85% of participants are in full-time employment, while recidivism rates three years after graduation are at around 18%.
But success has never been more urgent. Every day, more than 90 people die from overdoses across the US. That's more than 70,000 deaths last year. Deaths by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, rose by a staggering 540% between 2013 and 2016.
If you're not familiar with fentanyl, it's 10 times more powerful than heroin. People don't even know what's in what they're taking. It's a real risk in drug court concerning people's lives.
I lost one of my best friends - I call him my brother - to a drug overdose to heroin. And that was somebody I was with every day, went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. You know, we're doing the right thing and just one slip up and he lost his life.
That particular picture, he had it on Facebook. And he said, my nephew is my best friend.
Pedro Medina is the town's undersheriff, and his son Petey was Hector's best friend.
Evangeline, my granddaughter, she's a year and a half. He loved her, too. But he still remembers.
The police officer watched his son go from a healthy young man who was prescribed pain medication to a heroin addict in a few years.
My son's story happened three or four years ago. They had to do an open heart surgery. Pain medication, as you can imagine, Percocet, and Oxycon, and whatever else they were giving him. Time went by and he was released from the hospital, and he was still taking the pain medication which were prescribed. But then when medically, when they say that you're fine, they cut you off. Now you addicted. What do you do? And he actually became addicted.
Because of my son's death, there's a lot of people that have called me. I receive phone calls that are seeking help, that have touched them. Because some strong, young man, vibrant, very caring, so it's almost like they 'boom'. If it happened to them, it could happen to us.
So this is our high school. A lot of memories right here.
Losing his friend has shocked Hector into changing his life.
You know, like I want to go back to school. But I want to just try to work as much as I can now until maybe like this spring. You know, I want to start setting myself up for my future. You know what I mean? This is going to be crucial. I have goals and aspirations that I want to accomplish. And it starts within myself. And what I'm doing right now for my life and getting myself used to doing certain things, it's going to help me in the future.
Fixing a problem the White House estimates to cost the economy more than $500bn a year is not going to happen overnight. And while the Trump administration has called for an expansion of drug court programmes, critics say the White House has not done enough.
The strain is felt everywhere, hospitals, morgues, jails, foster homes, and courts are overwhelmed. But for now, at least, programmes like this drug court are giving recovering addicts a second chance at life.