Paula Fish -Drug Court

There are currently more than 3,000 drug courts in the United States. The one in Anne Arundel County, Maryland continues to expand to respond to need. Drug Court manager, Paula Fish, explains how it works and why it saves lives.

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Drug court is an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. The thought was that if people were given treatment and reconnected to the resources within their community, given the opportunity to put their lives back together, they wouldn't re-offend.

There's a tremendous cost savings to keeping people in the community and offering them treatment as opposed to incarcerating them and paying for all of their care, and then releasing them back into the community with the same problem that got them incarcerated in the first place. The way people come to drug court is not usually by choice. People are arrested. They're in a lot of legal trouble. They don't really have anything to go back to in the community. And they don't want to spend a lot of time in jail.

So they'll be referred to drug court by somebody who's working with them -- their public defender, the state's attorney, probation agent, as long as the person has an open case in the court, they can be referred.

At the beginning they're not all that excited about not using drugs anymore. They're not all that excited about following our rules. We have a lot of things that you need to do in the beginning. So the first phase of our program is engagement. And it's at that time that we are trying to help the person get some information, get into treatment, and get started even though they're not really sure that that's what they want to do.

When people first come into the program and we're trying to get them started, we don't kick them out for using drugs. And we don't kick them out for not showing up for their appointments. We find behavioral interventions to try to make that happen.

The only time someone would get kicked out in an early phase is if they don't show up. I can't work with them if I can't even get them here. But most people will keep coming back because they don't want to do jail. And eventually some of the things that we're teaching them starts to make a difference for them.

Once we get them engaged, the next thing that we focus on in Phase Two is the treatment. We're really focused on what they need. If they need more than one kind of treatment, more than one level of care. Some go to inpatient, some go to outpatient. Some end up doing several different treatment programs. And we also encourage people to use medically assisted treatment such as methadone, suboxone, and vivitrol when that's appropriate to them.

The third phase of the program is reconnecting people to their community to get jobs, attend school or training. To get some permanent housing and to get them involved with a sober support network, sober support network, whether that's one of the already established groups like AA or NZ or Smart Recovery or Celebrate Recovery or just through their own family friends, church. But they're going to need a whole new set of friends and supports than they had when they were using.

The fourth phase is just maintenance. People just show us that they can do it. When that's done, that's when they graduate. And that's when the real work begins because they have to do it on their own. One of the greatest benefits of drug court is that it saves lives. We have experienced a huge increase in opiate addiction in this country, and here in Anne Arundel County, and when people go to jail and they don't get treatment, they come out of jail and go back to using drugs right away. They’re at extreme risk at that point in time because a lot of them will go back and use the same dose they had been using regularly, and their tolerance is down and it's too much. And so we see a lot of overdoses happen right when somebody gets out of jail. There's a lot of fentanyl out in the drugs these days that is killing people. It's extremely potent. It's very cheap, and all kinds of different substances are being cut with fentanyl. So it's not just, um, the heroin users that are dying from overdoses.

We've seen people get fentanyl in their cocaine, get fentanyl in marijuana. Dealers are using it to pack the product and make it more potent and more desirable, and it's tragic and it's killing people. It can be really difficult to work with people in active addiction. There's a lot of lying. There's a lot of shame. There's a lot of depression and anxiety, and so it's very difficult to engage, just difficult at getting them in the door.

It's a tough job, uh, at the beginning, but the end is glorious. I mean, it's, there's nothing more uplifting than a dru g court graduation. We have people come back to us all of the time, even people that didn't successfully complete the program and end up in jail, come back to us after and say, Drug court really helped me. I learned so much in drug court and that's why I'm doing well today -- even though I didn't graduate, you know, you guys saved my life. And the people that graduate come back and see us, and show us how wonderful they are doing -- their new jobs, their are new families, their new children. It's incredibly uplifting.

Now that I've been at the drug court here over 10 years, I've seen a lot of different. When I first arrived here, we saw a lot of cocaine. We saw a lot of PCP, which was very common to this area and yet not in many other parts of the country.

And then recently it's just been a huge increase in opiates and it's probably the largest cycle that I've experienced. There's so much more need. We've been expanding our program to meet the need. There's been more money on the street in terms of support money available for people to get their lives back together and to keep them alive.

The opiate crisis has hit all walks of life. You know, there are very affluent people that are finding themselves in having a drug problem due to prescriptions for accidents, pain, trauma. And so people who never thought that they would end up in a courtroom are finding themselves here faced with very difficult choice: to go to jail, to stay alive, whether they want to work at changing their life and getting their old life back.

One of the most difficult things in this job is that some of our people die. And that's very hard to take, to see so much death around you. So, um, what keeps me going or what, what makes me love this work and love this job, is that so many people are saved. I mean, I feel like I save lives all of the time. And not just the lives of the people in the program, but that I've made life better for their children. Um, I’ve, you know, helped their children have a better parent, have a better connection with their parents, have a better life. And that I'm interrupted a cycle of, uh, maybe intergenerational substance abuse and neglect that goes along with that.

So it's more than just the people that come to drug court that I feel good about. It's all of the people in their lives whose lives are changed when one of our people changes their life. So there's just a lot to be grateful for and a lot to be excited about when I go home and take stock of everything that we've accomplished through bringing people into the drug court program and helping them be successful.

There are places where drug courts have not been implemented ,where the community has resisted them and where even some courts that call themselves drug courts don't follow the best practices, and don't function in the way that drug courts were meant to function. So there is still work to be done.

My name is Paula Fish and this is my story.

Eric Sterling -Inside the War on Drugs

In 1979, 30 year-old Eric Sterling went to work for a Democrat-led House committee tackling crime. A year later, Ronald Reagan won the White House and Republicans won the Senate. An epic battle for political control consumed much of the rest of that decade, and Sterling was in the middle of it, tasked with drafting the mandatory minimum sentencing policy. 

 He has spent the last 30 years speaking out against the repercussions and cynicism of the drug policy he helped enact and the destructive nature of the war on drugs.    

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When I started doing this work, it was very clear that the drug policy wasn't working.

The objectives: Keep drugs out of the hands of high school kids --we weren't doing that. Save the lives of drug users --we weren't doing that. Reduce crime -- it's clear we weren't doing that.

And so this policy, which is deeply, deeply entrenched and continues at billions and billions of dollars a year, it's doing something. And what I think its real function in our society is, is to maintain white privilege.

When I make this claim that this enterprise of the War on Drugs is about maintaining white privilege, I'm looking at a long history that when you understand, what was the basis of the early opium laws in the 19th century? It was anti-Chinese. When there was a need to get anti-cocaine and anti-heroin laws passed in 1912 and 1914, the rhetoric was Cocainized Negroes were the cause of the rape of white women in the South. When we look at federal marijuana laws in 1937, it's about Hispanics and the dangers of this new drug. Late 1940s and early 1950s, blacks using heroin, jazz musicians, urban heroin.

Race plays a very, very important part of how we conceive of this. This is very much the case in the 1980s -- crack was a black drug -- and the early 90’s. Now we're seeing the exploitation of the dangerous Mexicans. It's the dangerous Mexican traffickers. It's the Hispanic gangs, MS-13 from El Salvador. It's not white people. We’re the victims. We're in danger from people of color.

It plays out, then, when you look at who's being prosecuted. Overwhelmingly, the federal data is these are people of color. Only roughly one out of five federal drug defendants is white -- in a majority white country. They are overwhelmingly Hispanic and black.

Most drug users in America are white, and all the drug data shows whatever drug it is you are talking about, overwhelmingly the use is among white people, and those white users are overwhelmingly buying from white dealers.

In 1979, I was hired by the House Judiciary Committee Criminal Justice Subcommittee to help rewrite federal criminal law. I had just turned 30, and Jimmy Carter was the president. The House of Representatives and the Senate were controlled by Democrats, as they had been since the 1950s. The Democrats were ensconced in power. They felt perfectly secure.

And in November of ’80, Ronald Reagan was elected, defeating Jimmy Carter, and the control of the Senate switched to the Republicans for the first time since the early 1950s.

Now in 1981, I'm working for a new subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, and I now have to kind of establish myself, and I’ve got the drugs jurisdiction and this is a big deal issue. And then somehow I got assigned pornography and organized crime and money laundering! And so I had these extraordinarily high profile, controversial, political issues and legal issues to work on as a very young man, you know, I'm 31 and 32, you know, with relatively little experience on Capitol Hill. So I would have to become an expert relatively quickly on the subject matter. It was a lot of work.

We got deeply involved then in ‘83-’84 in the Department of Justice wish list of criminal justice enhancements which President Reagan had sent to the Congress in January of ‘83. It's called the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. Huge bill, you know, fifty major sub-elements.

The drug issue, of course, was a huge, huge issue at this point. Cocaine trafficking was increasing. There was still the concern about wide-spread marijuana use. And the Democrats in the House were working on this on the understanding we're going to do it on the piecemeal basis. On the Senate side, they just suddenly passed the whole bill! Many, many Democrats said, “I'm not voting against the president's crime package six weeks before the election!” And so it passes.

Many Democrats were defeated in that ’84 election. Of course Mondale and Ferraro were defeated. And it really stung. It really, really stung the Democrats.

In June of ‘86, Maryland basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose the night he signed with the Boston Celtics. The Speaker of the House was from Boston. This was stunning! Bias was a star, known around the country, extremely well-known around Washington because he was a local. And the Speaker saw a political opportunity. He called the Democratic Leadership together. “Let's put a democratic crime bill together. I want every Committee involved.”

And now as a young staffer, I am in the Speaker’s room meeting with the most senior staff of the House of Representatives as they are trying to figure out what their committee, the Agriculture Committee, the Interior Committee, the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, you know, what are all these committees going to do about drugs because they all have to kick into the pot. And so I am involved in all of these kinds of negotiations.

This is now July and August 1986. There is an Election coming up, and the Speaker’s objective is If we play this right, we can take the Senate back from the Republicans that we lost in 1980.

There is this perception of a crisis. This is the summer that crack cocaine is exploding into the national consciousness. Cars are being broken into. Car alarms in cities are going off all night. It’s crack, it’s crack! Oh my God, it's an epidemic! And so there are numerous hearings going on, and press conferences and there's a kind of a media frenzy. You know, What are we going to do about this epidemic? And members of Congress are pounding the table and pounding their fists and raising their voices.

And the Republicans are kind of back on their heels, you know, How can we push back on this? How can we make this harder for Democrats? You know, Are there votes we can structure that will embarrass them with their base? Or something like this. And so, the Republicans on our sub-committee got two of the anti-drug Democrats to go along with them to say, Let's have tough mandatory minimum sentences. Let's crack down on drug dealers, on high level drug dealers.

Mandatories had been eliminated in 1970. Mandatories are a terrible idea because they deprive judges of the ability of looking at the particular facts in the case and saying, Yes you've been charged with a serious crime, but your role in this case wasn't so serious. You're not the kingpin. You deserve a couple of years. But the mandatory minimums were structured on the basis of weight.

So I was given the responsibility of writing this bill. And this was being done with incredible speed. My first version was we would focus on genuine high-level traffickers as defined by the D.E.A. And so I bring this to the subcommittee, and Congressman Mazzoli from Louisville, Kentucky says, “Well, Mr. Chairman, we wouldn't be using this kind of law in Louisville, Kentucky because we don't have drug dealers that big.”

And nobody said, “Well, that's okay. This law will do its job in Miami, in Houston, in New York, in Chicago!” Nobody turned to the congressman and said, “Well, you know, Ron, people don't go to Louisville to do their big drug deals. Doesn't matter!”

But no, that wasn't the reaction. It was like, “Ron's right! Eric, come back tomorrow with something else.”

And what I came back with, after consulting with it turned out a very bad expert, we came up with much, much smaller quantities. Those were immediately adopted -- with no hearing, with no, no opportunity to get the D.E.A to sort of say, Well, wait a minute these quantities are too low. Or the Justice Department or the Bureau of Prisons to say, Well, this is what's going to happen. Or the federal judges to say, Step back a moment. Catch your breath.

No, none of that.

So it passes our committee. The next day, Friday, it passes the full Judiciary Committee, and that afternoon Congress adjourns for the August recess to everybody go back and campaign on how tough on drugs they are.

Labor Day comes. Congress comes back. Boom! The bill passes the House. It's back and forth to the Senate. They are going to be tougher. They're the Republicans. They raise the length of the maximum sentences. They lower the trigger quantities. And finally the bill passes in October and the president signs it. And the Democrats win the Senate back in 1986. So the bill is a success--in its political terms.

Many people thought that the important distinction that this legislation had between the quantity of crack cocaine of five grams for five years, and the quantity of powdered cocaine-- 500 grams for 5 years -- this one hundred to one ratio was racially-based. But race was not the factor in the setting of the quantities. Race was a factor in the hysteria. There was very much a sense that this was a black problem. There was the sense that this was going to spill out into the white community. There was a failure to look at the data recognizing that crack was overwhelmingly being used by whites compared to blacks because it still then was an overwhelmingly white country.

But race played an important role in the perception of the problem and in the shaping of the problem.

The prison population then was about 40,000. That was the size of the federal prison population and it had grown fairly dramatically by that point. Only 10 years earlier, it had been 25,000, and the federal prison population had been about 25,000 since the 1920s. It had been remarkably stable in its size. And there was not a sense that there would be a dramatic change in the size of the federal prison population as a consequence of this legislation. But we soon learned that that was not the case.

And by the late ‘80s it was clear that the prison population was growing dramatically. And, you know, in the early ‘90s, it bumped up to over 100,000. By the Obama Administration, it reached 213,000, and almost 60% of all the cases were drug cases.

The prison population, you know, as we're doing this interview is about 180,000, and half of those are drug cases.

The issue continued to be highly partisan and political. And so, as the 1988 election is coming up, the Democrats said, Gee, ‘86 worked. Let's do it again! Let's have the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. And again, I was deeply involved in what was now much more clearly an exclusively cynical political exercise of the Democrats trying to set it up so that they could win even the White House in 1988. That wasn’t successful.

People would then ask me, you know, in 1988, you know, “You've been here a long time, Eric. How has the drug problem changed during the Reagan years? What would your summary be?”

And I would -- my response to the reporters, and this would have to be off the record then, but it was, you know, “We started with a marijuana epidemic and we ended with a crack cocaine epidemic, and HIV and AIDS. An AIDS epidemic associated with injecting drug use and the prostitution around crack.”

In 1979 and 1980, we didn't know about HIV. You know, the term, AIDS it had not yet entered into the vocabulary.

And this was a very telling moment for me. There was a briefing of the House Narcotics Committee that I attended in which members of Congress are having explained by public health officials that HIV is being spread by the sharing of needles. And this is a particular problem with injecting drug users such as heroin users. And suddenly, a member of Congress -- and I forget who it was, you know -- he just like sits up and says, “This is going to solve the heroin problem!” Meaning they're all going to die from AIDS and the heroin problem is going to be taken care of when they all die.

I was deeply shocked. I wanted to leave. I understood that this policy was a failure. I understood it was driven by irrationality and by hatred and by contempt and by cynicism, by political ambition, by partisan ambition. That solving the problem and caring for the people who suffered was not the driving agenda of the Congress.

I wanted to use my expertise and my voice to begin to organize against this. And so I told the congressman after the election in 1988, “I’ve loved working for you. I'm leaving and I'm starting the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.”

And so in the beginning of 1989, I began to work to try to end drug prohibition, to save the lives of drug users, to fight organized crime, to redirect law enforcement resources against crime as opposed to focusing on the tragedy of drug users.

It has become clearer and clearer to me that the objective of drug policy should be to minimize the suffering of drug users. This terrible opioid epidemic shows that our policies are not concerned with saving the lives of drug users.

If we were concerned about saving the lives of drug users we would do the things that we know would save their lives: Make sure that the drugs that they get are not coming from organized crime, are not polluted with fentanyl and other kinds of chemicals. That we would help drug users manage their addictions. We would not be trying to shame them. We would be certainly encouraging them to go into treatment but we would not put them into treatment when they're not ready. We wouldn't put them in situations where they lose their medical tolerance and therefore be at risk of overdose when they relapse.

Everybody who comes out of treatment would be given naloxone. Everybody who comes out of jail would be given naloxone if they had any kind of history of opioid use. We would be giving out naloxone like condoms. If we believe their lives were worth saving!

And so we have created an industry – it’s the police industry, the prison industry and in many respects, the treatment industry that feeds off the courts — that continue a rhetoric and a vision about what we're going to do about the drug problem that is not about the drug users. It's about other kinds of goals that cannot be accomplished. It's not about saving lives.

I’m trying to change that. I’m speaking about it and organizing it.

And my name is Eric Sterling and this is my story.

Angel Traynor -Recovery Housing

From her own experience, Angel Traynor knew that if you don’t give someone a structured place to go after treatment and send them back into their old environment instead, they are at a high risk to relapse.

So she stepped in with Serenity Sistas housing, a safe haven for up to 47 people in recovery.

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The last time I walked out of jail, I was 45 years old. I had been using opiates for about 11 years. I was absolutely convinced that I was never going to use again. I was never going to use. I was never going to go back to jail. I was never going to hurt my family. And I tried to do it on my own and that never worked for me.

So what that led to was for the next 9 months I used and I got to the point where I was homeless. I had pushed everybody away from me, except for the people that were doing the same things that I was doing.

And, Labor Day of 2007, I had been using for 9 months. I wanted to die. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go. But I knew that I had to do something. I called a former counselor and said to her, “I need help.” And she got me a bed in a treatment center.

I was supposed to report the morning of September the 6th. When I came to that morning, I was so full of fear. I was afraid of failure, because I had failed so many times before, and I was also afraid of success, because if I succeeded even for a small amount of time, and then I failed, in my head, I was still a failure.

So being trapped in that fear on that last morning, my solution was easy. My final decision in active addiction was suicide.

By 7am that morning, the people that were in that room with me were reviving me.

I was just touched that day when I walked into rehab that I knew, I knew quickly within three days, I was willing to do whatever it took to never go back to using drugs.

And I’ve continued to do that for the last 11 years. I’ve not found it necessary to use drugs or alcohol since September 6, 2007.

I find it very important to share my story publicly. People need to hear that we can recover from our addictions.

I was an addict for 33 years which meant that I started when I was 13 years old. Through that time I was a teenage mom. I was a battered wife. I was a business owner. My business was successful. I owned a home. I raised not only my child but I raised two other children as well.

For the first 20 years, I really didn’t suffer any consequences. And about at year 21, I tried opiates and that was the beginning of the end for me.

The last time I walked into a rehab I had absolutely nothing. I had lost everything. I had lost my family, my business, my home. I was a three-time convicted felon. My dignity, my own self-respect. All of that was gone. So I really started from the very bottom.

I was 45 and three days later I celebrated my 46th birthday. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I had half a backpack of clothes and nowhere to go. Gratefully, I had a friend that was willing to take me in and let me sleep on her couch and quickly I had to – not only did I have to learn to live without drugs and alcohol as my coping mechanism – I had to figure out what I was going to do with myself.

I got my GED. I went into college because I wanted to be an alcohol and drug counselor. And I started my – I started my journey.

If it hadn’t been for other people supporting me, I don’t know that I would have made it because what I’ve come to find out is that there is no way you can overcome an addiction yourself.

I guess about 5 years into my own personal recovery, I saw a lapse in housing for women, in my town. There was nothing in the town of Annapolis. So I decided to start doing recovery housing.

The recovering addict, specifically women in the beginning, they didn’t have anywhere to go after treatment. And if you didn’t give someone somewhere to go after treatment and you send them back into the same environment, I already knew from my own experience, they were at a high risk to relapse.

I decided to start the houses, Serenity Sistas. I think I had about $983 in the bank and that was it. Right before Christmas of 2011 I was shopping, I was shopping at Kmart, and I saw bedframes on sale, for bunk beds. I was like, “Oh, I need those. I’ll just put them on layaway!”

Three weeks later, I got a very tearful phone call from my mom. She said, “You’re never going to believe what happened. Layaway Angels went in and paid off your bunk beds!” Which to me was, to me it was a God shot. They paid the entire amount off.

Three weeks after that, I received an anonymous check for $3,000 with a letter that said, “Go out and buy your new mattresses, and go out and buy your new sheets for your house because everybody deserves fresh linens and new mattresses when they start a new life.”

That was in 2012 and we now currently have 6 locations – single women, single men, mothers and children’s, and then I have a location that I use for crisis beds, people who seek treatment through our safe stations here in Anne Arundel county. They go there seeking help but they’re not going to get into treatment for 4 or 5 days because you just don’t get in right away. So we house those people as well.

So on any given day, we house up to 47 people that are entering recovery. And residents anywhere from 18 years old to 77 years old – that was my oldest resident.

These individuals, they’re just like me. They come and they either have lost the skills that we need to get by, or at 18 years old, they never had them in the first place. And they can be as simple as doing your laundry or parking correctly in the driveway. But then there’s other things like resume-writing. You know, if you don’t have a good resume and you can’t get that out there, how will you get employed? And I think at the end of the day, that’s all any of us want – we just want to be happy, healthy, productive members of society.

Often I go out and I try to educate the community. There are things they don’t know or maybe they aren’t thought about. And I have been told on a regular basis that, “Addiction does not affect me. I don’t know anybody that suffers from addiction. Why should I care?”

I’ve had people say that to me, and thank goodness, I have gained a filter because in the beginning, it was a little -- I stated this a little differently.

But we are all impacted by addiction.

I personally went to rehab or detox on public funds, through medical assistance, so that increases everybody’s insurance rates. It puts our taxes up.

There are times that I wrecked cars and I was an uninsured motorist which means your insurance went up, your insurance rates went up.

Theft – that’s how I made my living for a while is I stole things from people which today I’m certainly not proud of that. That also raises the cost of living.

So if you are to say to me that you are not impacted by addiction, I’m sorry but you are.

You drive a car. You’re out on the road. There are people who are under the influence whether it be from drugs or alcohol. You’re, you’re at risk.

So everybody is impacted by addiction.

I got to hit my own personal rock bottom emotionally and physically. With what’s going on in our world today, people are not making it to rock bottom. They are dying and they’re dying young.

So we have young parents that are dying, so there’s a generation there, and then they’re leaving behind children that are severely impacted. I know families where the children in that family have lost both parents to the disease.

It’s a societal issue.

If I were to ask one thing of anybody that can hear me right now, I would ask that you get to know somebody in recovery because the people that I know that are in recovery are some of smartest, funniest, most hard-working people that I know.

And I think that that stems from -- I know for me that it stems from knowing that I took from my community for so long, I just want to give back. I want to balance the scales if you will, and make that right.

Mariel Hafnagel -Grace & Luck in Recovery

Mariel Hafnagel is the Executive Director of the Ammon Foundation. In longterm recovery since 2007, she knows the disease of addiction well. Grace and luck and a lot of compassionate support changed her life.

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I didn’t wake up when I was 17 and decide that I wanted to be a drug addict.

The trajectory of my life and how I began to manifest addiction was not a conscious decision. Was picking up alcohol and drugs a conscious decision? Absolutely – because I was in tremendous pain and I wanted to take that away.

My addiction progressed rapidly, leaving limited if not zero time for intervention, education, primary level care.

My name is Mariel Hufnagel. I’m a woman in long-term recovery which for me means that I’ve been alcohol and drug free since May 7, 2007, after an alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine addiction from the ages of 17 to 21.

There was nothing extraordinarily dysfunctional or out of order or catastrophic that happened in my childhood. From a very young age however, I always felt less than, different, and was constantly looking for a way to diminish those feelings.

I acted out. I stole. I was promiscuous. I threw temper tantrums. Anything I could do to get outside of me and to get some attention from you.

I do remember at a very young age experimenting with alcohol, alone, and I just think that is important because the reason why I used alcohol and drugs, the reason I acted out was because I was trying to self-medicate.

It’s very clear to me there was something off in my brain, and that there were mental health issues, underlying and untreated.

I didn’t start using anything regularly until I was about 17. And in literally a matter of months, if not weeks, I went from having a seemingly pretty normal life, you know, a beautiful house, a loving family, a decent GPA in school, friends, a boyfriend, etc. – to being homeless, a prostitute, living on the streets of Norwalk, Connecticut. I had a $1500 a day drug habit.

And what comes along with that lifestyle, as a 17, 18, 19 year old female, is a lot of trauma, a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of dangerous situations. All that does is it perpetuates the need and the desire to continue getting high. There was nothing I needed to do more than numb out so I could escape from all of that.

May 7, 2007, I was arrested and I was brought to jail. That was the beginning of my recovery story.

So often we talk about someone needing to have a willingness or a honest desire to enter and maintain their recovery. I was not willing or voluntarily brought to Volusia County Correctional Facility. But what that allowed is it allowed just enough time for me to get physically separated from alcohol and drugs that I could begin to have some clarity about my life. And it was through that clarity that I became willing to be an active participant in changing and addressing some things, so that I could be sober and live a life that was worth living.

Detoxing in jail, potentially in physical danger, unlike any other chronic disorder that would be medically addressed, addiction is not ,and was not, for me. And so I’m terrified and just kind of just left to fend for myself. Which is not loving and not medically appropriate for anybody.

So I ended up being in jail for about two months. And when I was released I needed to make a lot of changes and I needed to address a lot of things that I had been shoving down and unwilling to address for years at this point.

I got accepted into a halfway house and I was there for almost 9 months. It allowed me to have a safe place to live, get involved with peer-to-peer support. It allowed me time to look for employment, apply for Medicaid and food stamps, and social services. All of this was vital for that first year.

I also needed to get honest about how I was feeling, what I was thinking. And one of the most important things that I have found in my personal recovery is having people around me who hold me accountable and who I can be transparent with about what’s really going on. Recognizing that part of just the human condition is that we are broken and imperfect and that’s okay. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. It’s okay to be who I am, in all its glory or in all its ugliness, and finding people who embrace me and love me and hold me up during those times. And had I not be able to kind of find that support, I don’t know if I would have been able to maintain my recovery.

I think it’s really important when we talk about recovery to talk about people being able to build meaningful, purposeful lives. Because without being crass – although I am crass -- if I can’t have a life worth living, why would I not want to be getting high?

Not saying that life needs to be perfect al of time. No one’s life is all of the time. However, when the bad times come, if there is purpose and meaning and love and connection in their life, it’s easier to weather those storms.

What happened when I was about five years in recovery is I realized there is a lot of discrimination against people like myself, and I became motivated to try to make a macro difference.

Oftentimes people ask me, what do I attribute my recovery to? And I say grace and luck.

Grace is defined as an unwarranted gift from God. And whatever you believe is your beliefs, but I believe that the universe is conspiring for our greatest good, all the time.

I believe that I’ve been put in the right place at the right time with the right people enough times to maintain my recovery and to become who I am today.

That’s also combined with luck. Luck for me is connected to privilege. It’s connected to the fact that I’m an upper middle class white female. Between the ages of 14 and 21, I was a repeat offender. I am now a convicted felon. I’m a sex-trafficking survivor, and I’m formerly homeless. Time after time, I was given second, third, fifth, a hundredth chances, by everybody – police, judges, by people who I just crossed paths with. I also experienced tremendous generosity because I was seemingly non-threatening. And, due to the socio-economic status of my family, I was able to access treatment, go back to school.

I was able to do all of these different things that are off-limits or much harder to attain than say my African-American female counterpart, my trans counterpart, my lower socio-economic counterpart.

My recovery should not be based on grace and luck. It should be based on the fact that I was given access to services, that barriers were removed, and that I was treated with compassion because I suffer from a brain disorder – and that’s why I should be able to have entered and maintained my recovery.

So since 2012 I have had the incredible ability to join what many people call the recovery advocacy movement. I have been able to work and live in a space where people are demanding what I like to consider the civil rights of people who suffer from a substance use disorder. And, you know, it started as a volunteer intern in 2012 and just six years later I have the distinct privilege of being the executive director of a foundation.

And that really is what recovery looks like, right. It looks like the fact that I got married. It looks like the fact that we rescued two dogs. We bought a house. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m an aunt. I’m a taxpayer. I’m an employer and an employee.

My story is not extraordinary. I just have been empowered to share it. There are thousands if not millions of others, just like me, living in recovery, a part of society who have overcome their own struggles with addiction. They have just not yet been empowered to share their story.

My name is Mariel Hufnagel and this is my story.