Sign up for alerts
Gail Low


Stopping the revolving door

Drug court workers help break cycle of addiction and crime

When she began working as a counsellor with the Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver, Gail Low thought she might feel judgmental about people with addiction. She had always opposed using drugs, and wondered whether that would shape her reaction to clients. It didn’t. Instead, she found herself feeling enormous empathy for people in their struggles. “It’s tough work. It’s really hard work to shake addiction,” says Low.

It’s hard work for Low, too. “We see the most difficult situations—people who are homeless, who are mentally ill, physically ill, and they all have drug addictions,” she says. Among the clients of the program have been people who suffered horrible physical or sexual abuse as children, who saw family members murdered, First Nations survivors of the residential school system and survivors of serial murderer Robert Pickton’s pig farm. For almost three years, Low has helped to shepherd her clients toward a better understanding of addiction and of the roads open to them to recover and build a better life.

Her work is part of a relatively new approach to addiction and the law being tried by Canada’s judicial system. The country’s first drug treatment court was established in Toronto in 1998. Vancouver followed in 2001, and drug courts now exist in Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg and Ottawa.

Their goal is to divert into treatment people who end up in the judicial system for crimes related to their addictions. The model is predicated on the notion that reducing recidivism for such crimes can sometimes be best achieved by addressing the underlying addiction. Trafficking or possession for the purposes of trafficking are the two offences usually mentioned, but stealing to get money for drugs also qualifies someone for the drug treatment court, Low says. Current violent offenders are excluded. Possible candidates are identified by prosecutors and offered the drug court option. Anyone who accepts must enter a guilty plea and agree to a legally binding deal to take part in the court-supervised treatment regimen.

To be eligible, a person must have a physical dependency on opiates, crystal meth or cocaine. Drug court therapists such as Low assess potential clients to ensure they meet criteria for the program. Those already in custody meet with drug court staff in the interview rooms provided in the holding cells. A registered psychologist also does a psychological assessment of each potential client. All of this happens before clients are formally accepted into the program. Participants who opt for and are accepted are granted a non-custodial sentence, such as a suspended sentence, plus one day probation, if they graduate from the program.

For Low, one of five therapists at the Vancouver court, working in the program has turned her days into whirlwinds. “It’s like we’re on the fly because people’s needs change constantly,” she says. One moment, she may be finding a bed in a recovery house for a client and arranging medication. Then she is leading a recovery group about post-traumatic stress. Next up might be preparing a report about a client for the court or making sure she notes the circumstances of another client who can’t attend because of illness. Everything must be documented for the court that oversees the clients.

The work doesn’t stop there. Homeless clients need safe places to live, so Low helps them find beds. Clients have slips in recovery, which means repeating some of her work with them. Some clients want to bring family members into the process, so Low adds couples counselling to the individual counselling she already does around addiction issues. Meanwhile, her door is always open in case a client needs to drop in and talk. Recently Low, who considers herself a very tidy and organized person, managed to clean out one of her several paper inboxes for the first time in six months.

Despite their promise, the drug treatment courts are not without critics. Some target the courts for demanding that clients in the program be completely clean or free of drugs. Low says the program is not as hard line as critics suggest: “People don’t have to stop using the minute they come in,” she says. “We work with clients to help motivate them to want to get clean. We are a harm reduction program where abstinence is the goal.”

But it’s hard work that takes clients through four recovery phases. The pre-treatment phase introduces clients to drug treatment courts. During this phase, clients are not expected to be completely clean. Clients then move into the recovery phase, where they must be clean for a full month before they qualify for the stabilization phase that follows. In the final, senior phase, clients attend groups on criminal and addictive thinking, while they reintegrate into the community. During this phase, clients begin working, attending school or volunteering, depending on their goals and abilities.

The stabilization phase is Low’s territory. Clients participate in three two-hour sessions a week, which focus on such subjects as post-traumatic stress and addiction, relationships, socialization skills and anger management. Low currently has 18 members in her group. During this five-month phase, clients are expected to be clean, although slips are considered part of the process. Those who make it to the senior phase and graduate may see their sentences substantially reduced.

It’s an intense process that requires the dedication of both clients and staff. Empathy is essential, Low says. “People do much better when their support workers make an effort to empathize and to work in a very positive, focused way,” she says. Low got into addiction work to help round out her counselling skills and because she saw addiction issues everywhere. “Addictions are not only with people in the Downtown Eastside [one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods],” she points out. “It’s a very satisfying job. I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing people blossom who previously had no hope for themselves.”

Low won’t discuss individual cases because the program stresses confidentiality, and even a tiny detail can give away someone’s identity. But she does say that one client has gone back to university and is now in her fourth year. Others have made good progress in professional and trades training programs.

In fact, clients who have overcome their addictions and gone on to build new lives often ask to return to the program as speakers. “Many of them are very bright and very resourceful,” Low says. They want to offer encouragement to others struggling with addiction. “This is a strengths-based program. Clients take ownership of their accomplishments. And we work to help them build self-esteem. They just need a helping hand to get going.”

Low says the program has a “ripple effect in the community,” as the families of people with addiction begin to heal, and clients who might have been stealing to support their addiction drop that behaviour. She hears clients talk about the respect they get for trying to get clean—respect that comes from friends outside the program who also struggle with addiction.

But those friends can also be part of the problem, Low says, because clients fear losing their community once they get straight. The program encourages clients to distance themselves from users to avoid getting into situations that trigger addictive behaviour. “We give them the support they need to find new friends by directing them to addiction meetings or to other support communities where they can form new relationships,” says Low.

But not everyone succeeds. The “graduation” rate from the court is 20 per cent. Some people drop out or simply can’t complete it. Others slip once they are back in the community and start using again. But Low isn’t discouraged. “Our clients haven’t lost what they’ve learned,” she says. “They’re still in a better place. I don’t look at that as a loss; it’s just a delay. They’ll remember how well they felt, and how much they accomplished. And some will get themselves back on track and into recovery.”

Print... Bookmark and Share RSS

Related links

Canadian Association of Drug Treatment Courts

Drug Treatment Court – Toronto

Drug Treatment Court – Ottawa

Drug Treatment Court – Regina

Drug Treatment Court – Edmonton

Vancouver Drug Treatment Court evaluation

International Association of Drug Treatment Courts

Event Calendar

Upcoming events and notices… more»


If you have questions or concerns, contact the editor.

©2011 camh. All rights reserved. Disclaimer