Longform

Denver brings meth addicts and cops together in an unprecedented fight against drugs

Audrey had one foot in the grave, the other one on it.

Meth will do that. One cold day in February 2009, high on drugs, the 25-year-old had taken the bus to Golden, then hopped a cemetery fence to reach the gravesite of a girl she'd known, a friend who'd partied hard, gotten addicted to crack cocaine, then died in a car wreck during a police chase. Looking at her headstone, Audrey knew that she could easily have been the one lying in the ground. Her meth habit had raged for six years, taking her to places unimaginable when she was a pretty, popular teenager living in Arvada. Slinging dope all over the city, stealing from her friends and family, running drugs and guns for the Mexican cartel, working as a narc informant, losing her three kids. She'd introduced her younger sister, Katie, to meth, and now she was as bad off as Audrey, maybe worse.

That afternoon, Audrey was supposed to start a new substance-abuse program that her probation officer had recommended, telling her it could be her last chance before she'd have to serve time for her transgressions, including a larceny charge. But Audrey figured she'd be able to scam the program staffers, just as she'd scammed her family, the Mexican cartel and the drug cops. So she called the program and said she couldn't make it, that she was stuck in a graveyard — which was more or less the truth, for a change.

That's okay, she was told. They'd wait for her to show up, no matter how long it took.

By the time Audrey finally reached the Denver probation department, it was 7:30 p.m., hours after her scheduled appointment. But sure enough, staffers were still there, waiting to take her in from the cold.

******

I have this kick-ass idea."

In January 2004, Lilas Rajaee-Moore, head of the Denver Treatment Assessment Screening Center, the substance-abuse component of the Denver juvenile probation department, knocked on the door of Division Chief Steve Cooper, the officer in charge of patrol for the Denver Police Department, and said she had a "kick-ass idea," one she'd already run by DPD chief Gerry Whitman: Cooper should assign some of his cops to work with Rajaee-Moore's new substance-abuse program.

The idea wasn't just kick-ass, it was unprecedented. Cops dealt with addicts when they broke the law; they weren't responsible for cleaning them up.

But then, Rajaee-Moore wasn't afraid to pitch a crazy idea to a cop. After getting her master's degree in social sciences, in 1995 she'd started as a treatment specialist at TASC, the Denver agency that provided substance-abuse services for between 600 and 700 juvenile offenders every year. After quickly working her way to the top, she'd helped launch the Denver Family Integrated Drug Court, which synchronized substance-abuse services and hearings for families when a parent was facing a drug charge and a child had a juvenile case pending, and she'd also extended TASC's mission to treating those parents involved with the family drug court. She'd even managed to land grants to stretch her over-extended budget to accommodate her ambition.

"She's pretty visionary in what she wants to do," says Helen Morgan, Denver's chief deputy district attorney and former chief of the Denver Drug Court. "She is very much in tune with what is happening nationally and locally on issues relating to substance abuse."

So in tune that Rajaee-Moore realized the city's existing drug-treatment and rehabilitation programs weren't cutting it, despite her best efforts. In 2000, more than 60 percent of all adult males arrested in Denver tested positive for illegal drugs; according to the Colorado Department of Corrections, more than 80 percent of all those incarcerated in 2006 needed substance-abuse treatment. Not that their time behind bars helped: In 2008, roughly three-quarters of all Colorado inmates transitioning to Community Corrections still needed treatment, a primary reason that more than half of all inmates released from prison in this state are back in jail within three years. Between the strain this puts on state correction and rehabilitation services and all the other miscellaneous costs, the Colorado Department of Human Services has determined that alcohol and drug abuse is the single greatest drain on the state budget.

Back in 2004, part of the problem was that the various agencies and programs didn't work together. "For a long time we were doing our own independent things and not understanding what other agencies were doing, and we were making it more difficult for people to be successful," says Denver Juvenile Court Judge Karen Ashby, who now presides over the Denver Family Integrated Drug Court. "It wasn't unusual to use short jail sentences as a sanction for people, but if they had kids in their home, oftentimes a weekend jail sentence could blow things pretty good."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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