GREENFIELD — Morphine made Aaron Picker feel like Superman.
He’s not sure when exactly he became hooked; the drug just suddenly became part of his routine. The Greenfield native would wake up and pop a few pills, head to work and pop a few more. They kick-started his day, made him feel powerful.
But Picker, 25, can remember the time before he was an addict; before he felt like he needed drugs to make it through the day. Sitting in the living room of the halfway house where he’s now staying, Picker said he’s doing his best to hold onto that feeling — the freedom of a clear mind and a steady path — while he works on getting clean.
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Picker is one of the first people enrolled in a new Hancock County treatment program aimed at getting opiate addicts help after a run-in with the law. The effort, spearheaded by Hancock County Circuit Court Judge Richard Culver and the county probation department’s crime-prevention specialists, targets residents arrested on drug-possession charges and offenders who violate their probation after testing positive for heroin or addictive painkillers.
The program emphasized treatment over punishment.
Offenders who submit to the program are booked into in the Hancock County Jail for 14 days to detox then placed in a halfway house, residential treatment center or work-release program, where they attend outpatient substance abuse programs for at least 90 days, said probation officer Amy Ikerd, who helped create the new protocol.
Offenders pay their way — an estimated $100 a week — though the county offers assistance for those who need it.
The program differs from the county’s current drug court program, which caters to those convicted of substance-related felonies — typically repeat drunken-drivers — who participate in a three-year treatment program and obtain a lesser conviction as a reward.
The new program is specifically geared toward charges related to opiate use or possession, and those who qualify will have short criminal histories and won’t have tried treatment in the past, Ikerd said. The defendant agrees to plead guilty to their charges, and the treatment program is worked into their sentence as part of a plea agreement, Ikerd said.
The users who participate must attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and pay their way through a treatment program. If they need assistance, Hancock County Mental Health Partners has signed on to help fill funding gaps, said Kevin Minnick, a probation officer and member of the Mental Health Partners board.
Picker was the first person to enroll in the new program. He had been serving time on probation for misdemeanor forgery and theft charges, but a routine drug screen found painkillers in his system.
It’s not uncommon. Nearly half of the 4,087 drug screens given to people on probation in Hancock County last year came back positive for drugs.
One of every five failed tests showed substances including heroin and painkillers, putting opioid-based drugs at the top of the list of drugs offenders continued to abuse — second only to marijuana.
In 2015, 174 people were booked into the Hancock County Jail on charges of possession of a controlled substance — nearly 2.5 times as many people who were jailed on the same charge three years prior.
It’s those people Culver said he’s trying to help. He recognizes the opioid-treatment effort isn’t foolproof, but he’s doing his best to gauge an appropriate response to what he sees as a growing problem in the county.
Far too often, the face looking up at him from the defendant’s table in his courtroom is that of a drug-user, he said. The person often claims they committed the crime only to support their addiction.
The new protocol calls for a judge to sign off on the defendant’s eligibility.
It would certainly be easier, Culver said, to simply follow state recommendations for sentencing — which don’t focus on treatment — and forget all about defendants after they’ve left his courtroom.
But Culver recognizes some of the faces, he said. They are the relatives of his neighbors or the former classmates of his children. He doesn’t want to attend their funerals, he said.
Culver coached a youth football team Picker played for as a kid, Picker said. He’s thankful for that old connection because it makes him want to work harder, he said; Culver and Ikerd took a chance on him, and letting them down isn’t an option, Picker said.
During Picker’s time of probation, his drug-use felt like a game in which he sneaked around trying not to get caught. He doesn’t want to play that game anymore, he said. He’s certain that if he hadn’t failed the drug screen when he did, he would have moved on from painkillers to heroin, like so many drug-users before him.
It hasn’t been the easiest start, but he is determined, and he wants to make the best of the opportunity the courts have given him.
“There is always that temptation to do it, but I won’t” Picker said. “I’ll be there one day.”