A Chemistry Experiment

The Denver Drug Court tests a formula for reclaiming addicts.

Brickner's office estimates that in Denver alone, only 7,000 of the more than 45,000 people who need treatment for substance abuse, receive any kind of treatment. Another recent study, by the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division, estimated that 250,000 Coloradans have serious substance-abuse problems. Even middle-class people with health insurance often find that insurers refuse to pay for drug and alcohol counseling.

"Treatment is grossly underfunded, and yet we rank in the top ten states for substance abuse," says Carmelita Muniz, director of the Colorado Association of Alcohol and Drug Service Providers.

Even those with multiple arrests for drug possession often go without help. Last year, a state report found that the most hard-core drug addicts in the criminal-justice system were also the most likely not to receive needed treatment. For example, only about a third of the drug addicts needing a residential treatment program were able to get into one.

Statistics like these -- and Colorado's seeming inability to do much to overcome them -- have driven Muniz and other activists to consider some kind of ballot initiative to boost funding for treatment programs in Colorado. While no decision has been made on whether to go to the ballot in 2004, a group has been meeting to look at possible sources of funding.

One target may be the state's current excise tax on liquor, which legislators approved in 1973 with the claim that most of the money would be used to fund alcoholism counseling. Instead that money -- about $30 million per year -- goes into the general fund. Muniz says asking voters to mandate that the money go into drug and alcohol treatment is one option her group is looking at.

With resources as strained as they are, proponents of Denver's drug court say they are doing the best they can. They believe strongly in the program, and they point proudly to individual success stories such as those in evidence at the recent graduation ceremony. Brickner says this is where the drug-court experiment truly shines.

"If you look at people's before-and-after mug shots, they look so much healthier; they gain weight, and their skin is clear," he says. "It really makes a difference."

As befits any commencement ceremony, a sheet cake and fruit punch are served once the diplomas are given out and recipients mingle with friends and family members. But the unusual nature of the graduation is highlighted when the audience is reminded of a Tuesday-night "after-care" program for graduates.

Then Assistant District Attorney Greg Long takes the podium. After offering his congratulations, he shares the story of his own battle with alcoholism and eventual treatment at St. Luke's Hospital.

"Lots of people here are now contributing members of the community because of the chance offered here," says Long. "Nobody outside this system has any idea what you've gone through to get here."

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