Drug court’s liquid loop

Drug court's liquid loop

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - The path to drug court can start in a million different places, for a woman we’ll call “Susan,” who’s part of the St. Clair county drug court, it started with a pain pill prescription.

“You get used to taking a certain amount and then it quits having the effect it usually does, I just needed more and more.”

Facing 5 years in prison, and on the advice of her attorney, she enrolled in drug court.

“Susan” said, “I didn’t know that much about it, but that’s what my lawyer had told me and steered me in that direction and I just went with it.”

"Susan" pays $55 a week to be in drug court and another $60 a week for classes on top of restitution payments and fees. She’s also subject to random drug testing, and that’s where the anxiety starts.

“If you don’t hear about it, that’s a good thing,” “Susan” warns.

If you do hear about it, it’s because you’ve failed the test, which in “Susan’s” case wasn’t a positive result for drugs, it was a dilute sample.

“Mine was due to, I’m assuming I drank too close to time to having to go, because it made my Creatinine levels low,” she reports. “Because they could see everything else, I was negative for everything. I’ve never had this happen, then I get 2 in the last 3 months."

You can produce a dilute sample on drug tests for several different reasons: one of them could be trying to hide the drugs you’ve taken, but there are more innocent explanations.

“The patient could drink copious amounts of water to prepare for the urine test,” says Dr. Savannah Clary, a Clinical Pharmacist at Aegis Sciences Corporation in Nashville. “If they know they’re going to provide a specimen some patients are nervous about being able to void a sufficient amount of urine so they drink extra fluids.”

Too much caffeine in your system or certain medications like some blood pressure medicine can also produce dilute results.

“The test result does not decipher the intent of the patient,” Clary says. “So the provider would need to put that into context about what they might expect of the patient, other behaviors or concerns they may have, and thoroughly determine other factors before they determine how to proceed with that dilute result.”

“It would be different if I did something, it would make tons more sense,” says “Susan.” “But I feel just kind of helpless and it’s just depressing.”

In St. Clair County a dilute result is the same as positive test, and means you can try submitting a second sample if you can come back the same day, or face sanctions that can start with 24 hours in jail. St. Clair County’s Community Corrections Department tells WBRC FOX6 News they warn drug court defendants of this policy when they enroll, as well as giving them instructions on how to avoid a dilute sample on their testing. The department says: “If a patient is intentionally diluting a sample to mask substance abuse, a sanction can deter them from continued attempts to dilute further test samples. Sanctions can promote honesty from the defendant, and allow them to receive the proper level of treatment for their substance abuse.”

"They will take you in custody unless you say ‘hey can I go this weekend instead,’ and that’s when he’ll say 'okay but you’ve gotta do double,” says “Susan.”

“Susan’s” a single mom, so she waited to serve her time over the weekend, but the delay turned her 24 hours into 48.

"It’s very stressful especially if you have children. You’re trying to stay calm like ‘oh mommy’s just going to the doctor for the weekend or something,’ you’re having to stay calm like nothing’s wrong even though inside you’re freaking out. "

We spoke to her just hours before she went back to jail to serve the second of back-to-back weekends for her second dilute sample result.

“It’s wild. It’s me, and then over here is a murderer. It is what it is. I’m not scared, but it’s not helping. There’s nothing that’s rehabilitating.”

“Susan” also worries about the cost, because every dilute test result sends you back to the beginning of your phase and adds hundreds of dollars to your tab.

“You don’t even realize it until you’re in there and then boom,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a very supportive family helping me sit with my son, or if I’m having problems coming up with $55 till i get paid, I’ve been lucky. But a lot of people don’t have that. I’ve seen this one girl, she just told the judge, 'I can’t do this anymore. Financially, anyway, I’ll go to prison,’ and it was like... wow.”

So how does St. Clair County’s policy compare with other counties? Jefferson County’s Drug Court tells us they use sanctions and jail time “on rare occasions” for dilute tests, but usually begin with extra counseling sessions or interventions.

Here’s what Shelby Count’s Community Corrections Executive Director Julius Cook told us:

“There are not really any “automatic” sanctions in drug court. Each situation is evaluated by the drug court team and each member will have input as to the appropriate response to any sanctionable situation. Each situation will include input from the entire team, which includes the judge, a treatment coordinator, case managers, an assistant DA and two defense attorneys. The sanction imposed is the sole discretion of the judge after receiving input from the team. The defendant’s treatment and court history will be taken into account when deciding what sanction is appropriate.”

The policy for dilutes is below. Sanctions can range from counselling, to community service to a short jail sanction, depending on the totality of the circumstances and the input from the drug court team.

Diluted Drug Screens: “Consumption of large amounts of liquids may result in a urine sample that is too diluted to accurately test for the presence of prohibited substances. A diluted drug screen will be treated as a positive drug screen, even if the dilution was inadvertent. There are no exceptions to this policy. Instructions are provided to Participants regarding how to avoid diluted drug screens on their first day in Drug Court, and at any given time upon request.”

We asked St. Clair County’s Community Corrections’ Mark Young several questions about their policies, here’s his response:

Answers to our questions about St. Clair County Drug Court's dilute test sample policy.
Answers to our questions about St. Clair County Drug Court's dilute test sample policy.

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