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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor, Ben McAdams speaks at the graduation ceremony for the inaugural graduating class of the Alternative Substance Addiction Program (ASAP) at the Salt Lake County Government Center, Monday, July 28, 2014
Graduating to a life without drugs
Courts » New drug court focuses on low-risk offenders.
First Published Jul 28 2014 10:07 pm • Last Updated Jul 28 2014 11:11 pm

A year ago, Daniel had spun a fragile cocoon of heroin.

The 21-year-old had been using drugs to soothe anxiety and loneliness since he began tinkering with the bottles in his family’s medicine cabinet almost a decade ago. He moved on to magic mushrooms and acid. By 20, addicted to heroin, he was facing felony possession charges and a bleak future.

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But as he graduated from the pilot class of a new drug court on Monday night, Daniel — not his real name — said he now has the tools not only to stay clean, but to avoid the isolated lifestyle that created the dependency in the first place.

"Socially, I was a total recluse," Daniel said. When he discovered heroin at age 19, he found a packaged remedy: It came with a tight circle of doping friends, the opiate emboldened him socially, and when he was by himself, it kept him from feeling alone.

"Being on drugs helped me cope," he said. Daniel tried to quit on his own; he moved from Sandy to Riverdale to distance himself from his drug scene. But he had no friends to support him. He relapsed when he went back to Sandy to attend the funeral of a friend who deliberately overdosed.

"Everyone did heroin," he recalled.

Not long after that, he was caught with two balloons of heroin in his car. As he tried to get the charges reduced to a misdemeanor, he found out about a new drug court for younger, lower-risk offenders. While existing drug courts gave priority to defendants at a higher risk of lapsing into crime, there also was a preventive value to treating offenders at the beginning of their addictions, Judge James Blanch explained at Monday’s ceremony. Salt Lake County launched the Alternative Substance Addiction Program about a year ago, and Daniel was one of three men to graduate from its inaugural class with a plaque and a dismissal of their drug charges.

Relatives in the audience cheered while each graduate stood with a parent and told county officials how treatment had helped them escape a path where drugs would have defined their entire adult lives.

"Now I’m here, now I’m graduating," one defendant said. "It makes me really proud, [seeing] where I was to where I came."

Daniel spent hours in group and individual therapy, studying the thought processes that lead to drug use and learning how to prevent them. For him, that has meant learning to make friends.

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"I needed to develop a social network that wasn’t based on drugs," he said. "I have ... new sober friends and relationships with all of my family. I’m not in my shell. I’m not alone."

Daniel is working construction and saving money to go to school to become a pharmacy technician and hopes eventually to get a degree in computer engineering — the kind of long-term plan that never would have occurred to him during addiction.

"You’ve got to decide not to go back to it and decide never to be around it," he said.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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