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Front Page » December 12, 2013 » Carbon County News » The high cost of drug abuse
Published 662 days ago

The high cost of drug abuse

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Sun Advocate reporter

Everybody pays one way or another, but there are signs of hope in some programs

Facing an epidemic of drug-related deaths equivalent to more than five times the state average, Carbon County substance abuse and law enforcement professionals are working to find some hope at the bottom of the Pandora's Box. Statically, one part of the system offering some of that hope is Drug Court.

According to Seventh District Court Judge George Harmond, who finished a six-year run as Carbon County's Felony Drug Court magistrate in 2012, the system is working. Harmond explained that the court, which has been active in Carbon County for nearly a decade, is one of the first steps in an overall trend of "Therapeutic Jurisprudence" going on across the country.

"The challenge is to take someone with substance abuse issues, who is also a criminal offender, and make them a productive member of society," he said. "The court is also faced with working to heighten the participant's ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle once they leave the system's oversight."

Harmond presided over roughly 120 individuals during his term and reported a significant drop in relapse and criminal offense in about 70 percent of the offenders he saw. In a typical court setting, 75 percent of drug related offenders relapse or re-offend within five years. Harmond explained that within Carbon County's Drug Court program, that numbers falls to between 25 and 30 percent.

When serving as Utah's Governor, Jon M. Huntsman Jr. stated that for every dollar spent on treatment, the state was spending seven dollars on incarceration, a sentiment many judges and treatment professionals agree with.

"I'm astounded that we would rather build prisons than pay for treatment," said Harmond. "For economic reasons alone a change in the manner drug offenders are dealt with makes sense."

Just like the county jail, the Utah State Prison at Draper is filled to capacity. A fact that shows the state is facing the same issue Carbon residents are locally.

According to a White House Study, 546 people died in Utah as a direct consequence of drug use over the course of one year. That is more than the number of individuals who died from vehicle accidents (320) and firearms (253) over the same period.

In Utah, drug-induced deaths total 20.6 per 100,000 individuals, nearly double the national average of 12.7 per 100,000.

Based on Carbon County's confirmed 24 drug related deaths in 2013, our number is closer to 120 per 100,000.

While Harmond maintained a positive attitude toward the drug court and its evolution concerning treatment, he was clear that the court is not a cure. It is a process which provides an addict with the tools necessary to fight a life-long battle.

However, despite the program's success and cost savings compared to incarceration, funding for the program has been cut dramatically since 2008.

According to a legislative report given annually to track the drug court's progress, funding has fallen from $2.1 million annually out of the Utah general fund in 2009 to $275,900 in 2012. Overall, the court's Utah budget has dropped from almost $5 million to $3.8 million during the same period.

While funding for the treatment oriented program has fallen, the number of participants and employees in the county court system has risen dramatically.

A project which began with a dozen participants and one tracker now services over 40 offenders and employs two full-time trackers in Carbon County alone. The slack has to be picked up somewhere, because while Utah likes to boast that "we do more with less," funding numbers must add up and salaries must be paid.

Virtually every law enforcement and treatment professional interviewed by the Sun Advocate over the past four months has stressed the importance of education and early intervention concerning substance abuse and its increased deadliness.

So what is to be done?

Karen Dolan, a therapist for more than 15 years who took over as the director at Four Corners Mental Health when Jan Bodily left, spoke of a community-wide prevention and treatment effort which allocates the limited resources available and aims them directly at the issue.

"There was a time when every citizen in the country was able to receive 30 days of inpatient treatment at no cost," she said. "That changed in the 1980s and funding has gotten more and more difficult for organizations to obtain since then."

Dolan's comment speaks to an ever-widening gap between need and the availability of treatment.

Wealthy individuals are able to attend the growing number of facilities which offer amenities like Swedish massage and four-star accommodations which offer a comfortable, medically monitored, atmosphere for detox and therapy.

On the other side of the spectrum, addicts who have lost everything and are facing felony consequences through the criminal court system are provided treatment at state-funded facilities which treat only those with nothing.

Anyone caught in the middle has virtually no where to go and no one to help them pay for it. It is this conundrum that keeps many addicts using until they end up in the group that has lost it all.

As bleak as the situation seems, the successes seen by family, felony and juvenile drug court programs could be the first step toward a workable and reliable treatment system.

"Despite the limits we face concerning funding, we are working toward opening as many resources as possible," said Dolan. "Also there are private providers in our area in addition to other state organizations who are determined to help those facing substance abuse issues. We need to make the full spectrum of treatment options known and available to everyone we can. It's important that people maintain hope. I have seen amazing success stories. I have people rise from astounding lows to incredible highs. The worst substance abuse problem can be treated as long as hope is alive."

Editor's Note: The Sun Advocate will later explore the issues which stand in the way of a detox and how medical professionals look at the situation.

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