Cops and meth: More success stories from Denver's one-of-a-kind drug treatment program

This week's cover story, "The Damage Done," details the Denver-based Justice Initiative for Drug Endangered Families, a unique approach to drug treatment that employs cops in their off hours to mentor addicts they usually lock away. The feature focuses on sisters Audrey and Katie and their recovery through the program, but they're not the only ones who've found redemption through JI-DEF. Another example is a woman named Nikki.

"Nikki is very typical of a person who was on her last leg," says Denver Lieutenant Steve Addison, who supervises the cops working with JI-DEF and also mentors Nikki. "Any kind of screw-up and she would have been in prison, probably."

Like many recovering meth addicts, Nikki's years on the drug now come back to her in a jumble, her brain not able -- or not willing -- to recall everything that happened. She knows it was around 2002 and she was a 17- or 18-year-old kid when she first smoked meth out of a light bulb. That was the type of stuff she did at the time: While she'd grown up in California and then the Denver metro area under the care of a hardworking mother, she'd grown rebellious, living with her friends rather than her mom and partying whenever she could.

She immediately liked the way meth made her feel -- like ecstasy, but better. Plus it seemed like she could be on it and still function. On meth, she would look after her younger siblings while her mom was at work or go all night long with her friends. Sleep didn't feel necessary.

At this point, Nikki's memories get hazy, just a blur of nonstop busywork and partying and meth. But moments stand out, recollections she'd rather not remember. Like getting her little sister high on her sixteenth birthday. Or lying to her mom, explaining that she was acting weird because she was drunk and not high on something worse. Or how her little brother would get so mad when she'd want to go party that he'd cry and hold his breath until it seemed like his lungs would explode.

Things seemed to get better for Nikki when she got pregnant at twenty. "It was good," she says. "It was something I always wanted since I was a kid." She cleaned herself up, got off the meth and moved back in with her mom for a bit before getting a place with her son's father.

But two years later, with family members looking after her son, Nikki started going out again, to hole-in-the-wall bars like the Shuffle Inn, the Fat Cat and Mickey Manor. It didn't take long for the meth to return, too.

Soon she stopped showing up at big family events, Easter dinners and Christmas gatherings. More and more, her son was raised by his grandparents. Nikki's house became a wreck, junk everywhere and the bathroom purple with grime. To pay for her habit, she started selling drugs.

She attempted to get clean, but it never seemed to stick. Convalescing was too scary, too time-consuming. She'd end up passed out on her couch while her toddler son would roam the house getting into trouble. Her friends wouldn't help; all they seemed good at was getting her high.

The other shoe dropped in June 2006. An undercover cop busted Nikki after finding three-quarters of a pound of weed in her fridge.

Nikki ended up with a three-year intensive supervision probation program, the sort of thing often reserved for hardened criminals. She signed over temporary custody of her son to her mother and moved from one rehab program to the next. But none of it seemed to work, since her mandatory drug tests kept coming back hot.

"I know I have a problem," she told her probation officer. "I know I am on probation, I know I have a kid, but I can't put the fucking pipe down."

So in the fall of 2007, Nikki's probation officer assigned her to JI-DEF.

At first, Nikki's strong-willed personality clashed with the intensive, all-encompassing drug treatment program. She didn't like the constant attention from the program's substance-abuse specialists and she wasn't too thrilled about meeting regularly with a cop like Addison. "I don't want a job," she'd complain when her support team would ask her what she wanted to do with her life. "I just want to be with my son."

But soon she warmed to the system. She liked the fact she could call the JI-DEF any time, day or night, even if just to talk. She and Addison would spend their weekly meetings walking around Rocky Mountain Lake Park. She asked to stick with five-times-a-week drug testing longer than mandatory, just for the peace of mind it gave her.

Everyone seemed to be on her side, from her probation officer to the treatment specialists to the security guard who'd welcome her when she'd show up to get her drug tests. Through JI-DEF, she met with a therapist, took life-skills classes, investigated career options and regularly attended family nights, where all the clients and their families would get together and have a big meal. Meanwhile, play therapists worked with Nikki's son. "It felt like one big family," she says now. "When you are a drug addict, some people may feel it's you against the world, but there's a whole army behind you at JI-DEF."

These days, the strong-willed Nikki is gone -- at least when it comes to issues involving JI-DEF. Her meetings with Addison are much less frequent, but when they do meet, she only has good things to report. She helps lead peer-support groups run by the program, listening to other women's stories that sound strikingly similar to her own. She's done with her rehab treatment and drug tests and, last month, got a call from her probation officer: After having been clean for three years, she was officially off probation.

Nikki doesn't know exactly what's next for her. Maybe she'll look into becoming a drug counselor, maybe not. One thing's for sure: Whatever the future holds, she's confident it's not going to end up a drug-fueled haze like her past.

"I can truly say I am okay and I don't want to use anymore," she says. "I am okay."

More from our The Donkey Show archive: "Spotting the meth den while in the DNC's Invesco line."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner