Drug court: one front in Winchester's fight against substance abuse
Federal officials consider Winchester part of the Washington and Baltimore "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area." WMRA's Randi B. Hagi spoke with some of the people trying to loosen the hold that illicit substances have on the region.
It was a little before 2 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and just over a dozen people were milling about in the Winchester Circuit Courthouse. An officer opened the courtroom doors, and the group filed in, lining the wooden benches.
When Judge Alexander Iden mispronounced someone's name, everyone laughed – including the judge – because this was not a typical hearing or a trial. This was drug court. It's a program designed to help people with nonviolent charges and a substance use disorder get sober and get their lives back together. Just a note – I wasn't able to bring my audio recorder into court.
Judge Iden asked the participants, one by one, "so – what'd you learn this week?"
They talked about attending Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, organizing a school supplies drive, and making it through a brother's funeral. At the end of each interview, the judge announced how long that person had been sober – and the whole room clapped, whether it had been 20 days or 500.
Outside, I interviewed Shane Bowlen. The 44-year-old is in the final phase of the program.
[sound of traffic]
SHANE BOWLEN: The biggest thing about the program is honesty. It's not just being honest with everybody else, but being honest with yourself, that the change that you want to make is real and sincere. … Addiction is really something that is not – you know, most people think that you just make a change one day and decide that you don't want to do it anymore, and it's done, but that's not the way it works. It's an everyday thing. It's every day of, when you get upset, or a family tragedy happens, or you know, anything in life that's not a standard of what you think should go your way. It's that ultimate thinking pattern that hits that goes, "oh, I just need to go get high."
Bowlen praised the clinicians at Northwestern Community Services Board, who provide the treatment part of drug court. Outside of the program, he enjoys volunteering with the Timbrook Achievement Center, a local after school program, and riding motorcycles.
BOWLEN: I've got a 2000 Harley Road King, is one of them, and then I've got a 2018 CVO. And other than that I mow grass. … I ride around my compound with a riding mower with my hand out. [all laugh] But these are all things I've learned to do and enjoy without being under the influence of something. I mean, it's really enjoyable. It's just like the day today. It's just a nice, peaceful day right now, and it's sunny and it's beautiful outside. I can enjoy it – I'm sober.
Participants are referred to the drug court by the Commonwealth's Attorneys in Winchester, Clarke, and Frederick counties. It's run by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, and the staff are working towards starting drug courts in Warren and Shenandoah counties later this year.
I talked with Drug Court Coordinator Jane Ewing and Director Teresa Cluss about what they've seen in the past seven years, since the drug court was created.
JANE EWING: Opiates is a big factor up here.
TERESA CLUSS: Yeah, opiates, opioids, but it changes. So right now, they're seeing some meth, as well.
EWING: And cocaine is big. It was, really, when we look at all of our participants, kind of the top drug of choice was cocaine … but followed with opiates and meth, and usually, it's always a mixture.
All participants start out in intensive outpatient therapy, which for some includes medication assisted treatment – such as suboxone, which is used to help people wean off of opioids. From there, Coordinator Jenna Barsotti explained –
JENNA BARSOTTI: There is a "seeking safety" track, which is … a trauma-based group. They also have "dual diagnosis," so if you have mental health as well as substance use. And then they have "relapse prevention, relapse recovery" … that's just the general track.
It usually takes 18 to 24 months to complete the program. They've admitted a total of 101 participants so far – 45 have graduated, and 34 have been kicked out. There are 20 people still in the program. And, sadly, two have died – neither from drug overdoses, although Ewing said relapses do happen.
EWING: We did just recently, in drug court, have one of our participants overdose on fentanyl. It terrified our client. It terrified us. The treatment team came up with a real in-depth [plan] to get him back on course.
In the second part of this report, we'll hear from another drug court participant, and delve a bit into the data that local law enforcement have on substance use.