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Drug court helps fight addiction

J.K. was getting ready for work the morning of March 27, 2008, when she heard a "Bang! Bang! Bang!" on the door of her basement apartment in Grand Forks.

J.K. in court
Drug court participant J.K. updates Judge Sonja Clapp on her progress in the drug court program during a recent session. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

J.K. was getting ready for work the morning of March 27, 2008, when she heard a "Bang! Bang! Bang!" on the door of her basement apartment in Grand Forks.

"Who in the hell is that banging on my door like that?" the 55-year-old wondered.

Three officers with the local narcotics task force came charging down the steps with their guns drawn. They put her on the floor and handcuffed her. She was charged with possession of pot and meth.

A drug user her entire adult life, she wanted to get clean, so when J.K. was offered a spot in the county's new drug court, a yearlong program that emphasizes recovery, she took it.

J.K., who asked to be identified by only those initials, and another woman were the drug court's first two participants. Their regular meetings with a judge, prosecutor, probation officer and addiction counselor started in August 2008.


On Tuesday, she said the program's rigid structure and required testing has helped.

"This is the longest I've been clean in my adult life," she said.

Though reaching that benchmark wasn't without a struggle. In August of this year, the month she was set to graduate from drug court, she relapsed.

"I went to check on a couple that I hadn't seen in NA meetings, and when I got in their apartment, they were playing cards and smoking meth, and I just -- I didn't even think.

"I just joined the party."

A routine drug test came back positive, disappointing the drug court team and landing her in jail for five days as punishment. She had to redo the third phase of the program, which meant four more months in drug court. The experience, she said, reminded her of the bad side of drug use.

Subconscious fears of graduating and losing the support of drug court, J.K. said, may have contributed to her relapse, but whatever the case, she's now looking forward to her graduation at the end of December.

"I've got excellent support through friends -- good friends that I avoided when I was using a lot, my clean friends that never got into the drugs," she said.


When battling a force as strong as addiction, relapses are expected, sad mental illness case manager Lori Mohagen of the Northeast Human Service Center. For those who haven't experienced it, J.K. describes addition this way:

"It overpowers you. You get to the point where you don't have the decision. It's the addiction that overrides your common sense, your morals, your scruples -- where you don't think of the consequences, you just go for the high."

J.K. went through treatment in 1987 for cocaine and marijuana but didn't stay straight for more than six months. Through drug court, she said, she's gotten clean by changing her thinking and behavior, essentially learning a new way of life.

On Monday afternoon in the Grand Forks County Courthouse, 10 drug court participants lined up in the hall for breath tests. After demonstrating their sobriety, they filed into Courtroom 101 and took seats in the gallery. One by one, each was called to the front to update Judge Sonja Clapp on their drug-testing results, their progress in treatment, whether they've kept appointments with their probation officer.

The news was generally good: Nobody had slipped up, and one participant who had been quiet in his treatment group was now talking more. Everyone walked away with a prize -- in some cases candy, in others a coupon for $10 off court fees. And, as tradition, prosecutor Nancy Yon posed the same question to every participant. This time, it was: "What are you most looking forward to this week?"

One guy said he was excited about seeing the "New Moon" movie.

"Are you going to the midnight one?" Yon asked.

"I can't. I've got to be in bed by 9:15," he said, referring to his drug court curfew.


"Trick question," probation officer Christy Thelen cracked.

Laughter bounced around the courtroom.

"You don't usually get that in criminal court," Thelen said later.

Along with levity, heaviness shows up in court, too. During this fall's harvest, J.K.'s 53-year-old boyfriend suffered a heart attack behind the wheel of a beet truck that was parked, waiting for a load. Her man of 10 years died on a Monday morning.

"It was a horrible day for me. I left work, and it was, I mean, just horrible."

She thought about skipping drug court that afternoon, but ultimately decided to go.

"I went ahead with all my commitments that week because that's what the program is there for," she said. "They're there for me to learn how to live through grieving, through happiness, through stress."

J.K., who's lost loved ones before, said this is the first time she's dealt with such a loss without drugs. "I'm probably doing better doing it straight and sober than I was messed up, I think, because you don't have the ups and downs."

All kinds

From college students and house builders to fathers and grandmas, the program is a slice of county life. Mostly, they suffer addictions to alcohol, pain pills, pot or meth.

J.K. said she has no criticism about the program, but others have complained that two Narcotics Anonymous or Alcholics Anonymous meetings each week is too much and would like an alternative, such as community service, to one of the evening meetings.

She recommends the program, but only to those who want to get clean.

"In the 15 months I've been going, I've seen people coming in, and they don't last but six weeks probably," she said. "You can kind of tell those right off the bat just from their attitude and stuff."

Participants who break the rules face sanctions including community service, jail time or termination.

With 16 people enrolled, the drug court continues to expand. Yon says so far, about five people have been booted. Meanwhile, one person has graduated and three more are expected to do the same before year's end.

Ingersoll reports on crime and courts. Reach him at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to aingersoll@gfherald.com .

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