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Breaking Bad

Drug Court has helped hundreds escape from lives of drugs and crime—but does the program itself have a future?

January 26, 2011, 2:00 am

By the time Carlos Gonzales started Drug Court in 2001, he had already relapsed after each of nine different residential rehab programs all around the country. It was a last-minute decision by 1st District Court Judge Michael Vigil to admit him to the program.

“He was headed to the penitentiary and I was ready to send him,” Vigil says. “But there was something about him the day that he appeared for my sentencing that seemed sincere. And just the way he talked about realizing where he was in his life and how this was pivotal—if he went to prison that would be it.”

“I thought I was someone who was destined to die in prison—and that’s not who I am today,” Carlos Gonzales says.
Credits: Wren Abbott

Gonzales was as surprised as anyone when he sailed through the program without a relapse. He says he thought he was destined to die in prison. Instead, he’s now the procurement manager at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. He sponsors current Drug Court participants, he’s spoken in front of the state Legislature on behalf of the program, and he’s on the board of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. As of Jan. 30, he will have been clean for 10 years.

Gonzales, along with experts in the field, says Drug Court has significant advantages over residential addiction treatment programs. Drug Court requires participants to take responsibility for staying clean and doesn’t isolate them from real life. Gonzales says he viewed the inpatient rehab programs that he went through prior to Drug Court primarily as a way to escape the turmoil in his life and appease his family.

“What Drug Court did was they made you become accountable for what you were doing,” Gonzales says. “You had to have a job. You had to go to meetings. You had to report for [urinalysis or UA]. You had to pay child support if you owed it. Treatment doesn’t do that. It’s not real life.”

According to treatment providers, UAs are critical.

“We know that they’re clean and sober sitting there, so they’re really absorbing what we’re working with,” Brian Parkhill, a licensed social worker who counsels drug court participants and other recovering addicts, says. “If you have a guy who is not doing drug testing, he can tell me lots of really good things but, the truth is, if he’s going out that night and using, he’s not getting anything out of it.”

To deal with the challenge of temptation, Vigil suggested Gonzales carry a picture of his four daughters with him everywhere to remind him why it’s important to him to stay sober. After two months of sobriety, Gonzales faced his first big temptation when someone offered him drugs.

“And I pulled out those pictures and I made a choice…It’s as simple as you make the choice,” he says. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I was brought up that way; I had a bad childhood,’ and I’m not discounting that, but I’m saying, if you really want to quit, you have to make a choice. You can make a good choice or a bad choice, but you can’t blame anybody ’cause nobody puts the beer down your throat; nobody puts the drugs in your system. You do. And that’s what Drug Court made me realize.”

When Gonzales worked at Albertsons, Vigil would come talk to him while he was shopping.

“He would see me stocking the shelves or whatever, and he’d come and talk to me and he’d always walk up and shake my hand,” Gonzales says. “He never demeaned me. He always talked to me on the same level. He would tell me, ‘Do you have your picture?’ And I’d pull out my wallet and I’d show it to him…It was for real, he was for real.”

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