Can people in the throes of drug addiction be coerced into going to treatment?

Gregory Scott says he was.

“I came in here kicking and screaming,” Scott said this past week in a King County courtroom.

The county’s Drug Court had its first in-person graduation ceremony in three years, since the pandemic hit. I wanted to observe the court in action to weigh whether there’s a possible path out of the region’s spiraling drug crisis — using the justice system.

“My hustle is I would steal copper to buy more drugs,” said Scott, 57.

After multiple arrests and failed attempts at rehab, Scott got put on the spot. Charged with felony-level property crimes, he was given a choice: Go through a roughly yearlong drug treatment program or go to prison.

“I have a long history of quitting,” he told an applauding crowd in courtroom E-942. “I quit high school. I quit playing football. I quit on my family. I quit a bunch of jobs. Well what I’m proud of today is, I quit using drugs and alcohol.”


By completing the treatment — he said he’s been sober for 30 months — he got his felonies canceled.

“That’s why I got into this program, was so I could qualify for senior housing,” Scott said. “You can’t stay in senior housing if you’re a convicted felon.”

This is the biggest question facing state lawmakers this year, along with every city mayor: How hard or how soft should they be on drug users?

This past week, up in Bellingham, the mayor tried to pass an ordinance that would have made the public use of hard drugs a crime, subject to arrest. But the City Council there rejected it, arguing that jailing drug users is fruitless (especially without a solid treatment program).

Right now the state Legislature is locked in the same debate: Should having or using drugs like fentanyl or meth be illegal? The alternative is to decriminalize them, with users referred to treatment clinics, without legal pressure.

“We’ve shown that 80% of people with opioid addiction want to stop or reduce their use,” UW professor Caleb Banta-Green told state senators last month. “They do not need legal coercion, threats, nudges or sticks to engage in care.”


The Senate went with the stick. The body passed a bill that would make having hard drugs a gross misdemeanor. But city courts around the state would be required to set up a treatment program as an offramp away from jail.  

It would be the defendant’s choice — go to trial or go to treatment. Just like King County’s 28-year-old Drug Court.

The “defendant would agree to meaningfully engage in a substance use disorder treatment program in exchange for the state dismissing the simple possession charge,” reads the bill, SB 5536. Failing the treatment would get you jail time.

When the bill passed the Senate, it split the Democrats, about half of whom feel drugs should be solely a medical issue, not a criminal one.

There’s no doubt drug courts work, though, in the sense that many defendants use them as a relief valve to get treatment and to clear their records. The presiding judge for King County Drug Court, Mary Roberts, said the threat of punishment is a motivator to at least try the program.

“Certainly the decision to opt in to Drug Court is influenced by the fact that they’ve got a felony hanging over their head, and often significant prison time,” she said.


But she said the possible paths out of addiction are so varied that whatever the state comes up with had better be flexible, patient and persistent.

Of the five who successfully completed Drug Court last week and had their felonies cleared, two had failed the program previously. One counselor said she had been working off and on with her graduate since 2012.

“You guys finished this!” gushed the guest speaker, radio DJ Marco Collins. He said it took him eight trips through rehab before it finally stuck. “I never finished anything when I was in my active addiction.”  

What’s surprising about King County Drug Court is that nobody was there on drug charges. Even before the state’s felony drug law was struck down, most Drug Court enrollees got charged with crimes they committed to support a drug habit. Crimes like car theft, burglary and trafficking in stolen property.

The folks running the court say it doesn’t really matter to their operation whether the state makes drug possession a crime. Drug possession is no longer a felony, yet every slot in every felony-level drug court in the state is filled with a defendant anyway. It speaks to how often people who commit other crimes are in the throes of addiction, and also what an intense demand there is for treatment programs.

Of course there’s another reason to make drug use a crime: so cities can clear their downtown streets. This was the rationale for the Bellingham mayor. It’s a sound goal, but it raises the question of whether arrests are necessary to make that happen.


A recent book critical of drug courts, called “Enforcing Freedom,” argues that their purpose in the justice ecosystem is to put a progressive gloss on the same old war on drugs.

It’s “just helping liberals get on board with the idea that everyone needs to get arrested for there to be a benefit,” said the author Kerwin Kaye, a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University.

I think the reality is that some people do need a nudge or a stick. The bigger issue is that drug treatment just isn’t widely available in this state. I haven’t seen much sign the state intends to fund enough treatment in enough places to have much hope their proposed diversion programs will actually work.

Because the one thing you learn at Drug Court is that this stuff is hard.

One graduate, Roxy Kostelac, 43, said the allure of meth was so strong for her that she washed out of the program the first time. She tried again and beat back the drug a year ago. She was hesitant to join in any celebrating.

“It’s not like I’m winning a Grammy or something,” she said. “There’s so many people I’ve seen go through this program, they graduate and they’re dead, once they leave here. They think they can use one more time.”

“So this is day one for me of going to work. It’s scary,” she said. “I’m still broke, I’m still struggling, life is still hard. But I’m not using.”