Putting Years of Drug Use Behind, With Help 

Putting Years of Drug Use Behind, With Help 
Posted by FoM on January 23, 2000 at 08:42:28 PT
By Maureen West, The Arizona Republic
Source: Arizona Central
Tommy Sapien was an altar boy who sold drugs. But he had his limits: He wouldn't sell at school or on church grounds. "I know God sees you everywhere, but if I sold them there, I would go to hell for sure," he said. 
So, Tommy would walk down the street and find some other kids to sell to, little kids who would give him $1 for a reefer. That was five years ago. Tommy is 16 now, and he's clean for the first time in years. He's been through nine months of drug counseling, group therapy and drug testing after being arrested for possessing drugs and a firearm. He graduated from juvenile drug court earlier this month, and he's working on his GED at Rio Salado Community College and thinking about learning a trade. Counselors suggested that Tommy try food preparation or machine operation. He may, but it doesn't sound very exciting to a kid who used to carry around two phones and a pager, made hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars a week and bought his girlfriends expensive gifts. The truth is Tommy liked being a drug dealer. "I liked the way people look at you, like you have money. Mostly the girls," he said. "I liked having a lawyer call me (to buy). People would like to see me show up. I was somebody. I think I was more addicted to selling the drugs than to taking them." But he took plenty. His system was so full of drugs that it was six months before he could pass a drug test after his arrest. It took that long for the drugs to clear his system. Getting The Habit:Unlike many kids who use drugs, Tommy didn't come from a poor or broken home, or one where the parents used drugs. His mother is a legal secretary; his father is a construction foreman. Tommy didn't need drugs to escape from a tough life. Drugs just seeped into his life and took over. When he was in fifth grade, he bought a marijuana joint with $2 in lunch money from an elementary school friend whose parents sold drugs. "I saw it in the movies," he said. "I saw it in a friend's house. I heard stories about how it made you feel like you were floating." He liked that feeling, so he bought more. Soon, he was encouraging his friends to try it. Dealers began calling him and asking if he wanted in on the action. "The whole group was following me. I was the leader," he said. "It made me feel good." Tommy sold drugs through seventh and eighth grades while attending a Catholic school, and he continued selling through a quick succession of high schools: Tolleson, Peoria, West Phoenix and North. He hid cocaine in his bedroom and buried a huge stash of marijuana under the floor so his parents wouldn't smell it. The day he graduated from his school's Drug Abuse Resistance and Education program, he was using and dealing drugs. He and his friends thought DARE was a big joke. His parents said they noticed changes in their son. But for three years, they couldn't admit to themselves that he had a problem. They did suspect that his friends were gang members and drug users, so they decided to enroll Tommy in a Catholic junior high school, thinking he'd be safe there. When they got several anonymous calls saying, "Your son is selling drugs to my son," they told themselves it couldn't be true. Tommy was playing sports and couldn't be high, they rationalized. Tommy is smarter than that, they thought. By the time he was in the ninth grade, Tommy was constantly high or drunk, and almost always in trouble. He rarely went to class, and he failed every subject. In two years of high school, he earned no academic credits. One day, in the fall of his freshman year, his parents found him passed out in his bedroom. They couldn't deny the truth any longer: Tommy needed help. They put him into a 30-day detox program at Charter Hospital in Phoenix. They were lucky; they had health insurance that covered residential treatment. But Tommy was far from ready for it. He was angry. "My friends and I had this joke that rehab was for quitters," he said. On visiting days, his mom and dad went to see him. His mother did the talking; his dad just looked at him with a hurt expression. His mother attended family therapy sessions with Tommy. She cried when she learned that he had tried every drug but heroin. He was only 14. Fifteen days into the program, Tommy had cold sweats, shakes and nausea. He couldn't sleep. His mother wouldn't OK any medications to make the withdrawal easier; she wanted him to feel the pain so he wouldn't try drugs again. She thought the nightmare would end when Tommy completed the program. She thought she'd have her son back again. "The truth?" Tommy said. "I was looking for the next high." Dealing in Treatment:When Tommy left the hospital, he went into Pathways, a private after-care program for teenagers who are addicts. The teens live at home or in halfway houses, get counseling and go to a Pathways school. His parents were told not to worry about him because he would be around "kids who were also trying to stay sober - they would help each other." That's not what Tommy discovered. "There were more drugs in Pathways than I ever imagined," he said. He got in on the action, selling LSD, PCP and other hallucinogenics to other kids there. And he picked up a new addiction, cigarettes. In a matter of weeks, he had been caught twice using and dealing and got kicked out of the program. So, he went back to a public high school, where, he said, the demand for drugs was high. "I made so much money. One day I made $2,000, and, over a two-week period, $4,000 or $5,000," he said. He spent a lot of it on girls. Some were drawn to him, but others wouldn't have anything to do with him. "One girl told me I was ugly," he said. "Not because of my looks, but because of my attitude. I thought about it, but not enough to change who I was." Tommy bought his drugs from an older guy who got his supply from Mexico or South America, Tommy isn't sure which. He would give his supplier proceeds from the sales as he made them. Then he would get his share back, usually $4,000 or $5,000 for every $20,000 in sales. Arrest Changes Things:Tommy said he always took along a gun, usually his dad's, when he picked up drugs. In the fall of 1998, on a run to get a supply of drugs, he and a friend were arrested in Glendale near Bethany Home Road and 61st Avenue. He had his dad's gun with him and about 20 grams of drugs. Until that day, 15-year-old Tommy had been arrested only for breaking curfew. He now faced a Class 6 felony for possession of a firearm, a Class 5 felony for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, as well as three misdemeanors, including curfew violation and carrying a gun without a license. When the police called his home from the precinct station to say that he could be bailed out, his mom told police to take her only child to jail. The police tried to tell her that he was cooperative during the arrest and could be bailed out. "Take him," she said in tears. He spent the next few weeks in the Durango Juvenile Detention Center in southwest Phoenix, then was placed under house arrest at home. He couldn't leave the house, but he still managed to sell drugs and get high. He would go out to the side yard, where drugs would be dropped off; then teenagers would stop by the house to buy them. "I had too much time on my hands," he said. As part of his probation, Tommy was in the non-profit TASC (Treatment Assessment Screening Center) program where he had to attend counseling and have drug tests three times a week. After a couple of months of failing tests, he was charged with violating probation. Early last year he was placed in the HIP, or High Impact Program, run through the Durango Jail, which includes a tough regimen of exercise. "They take you running until you get sick, and you're detoxing at the same time," Tommy said. When the five-day program was over, an exhausted Tommy was released and put on a waiting list for the Maricopa County's Juvenile Drug Court, one of three now operating in the Valley. The drug court has become a model for other programs across the country. Judge John Foreman, who started the program, has seen it change teens' fates. One of three addicts who graduate relapses, but that still leaves two others who haven't, he said. Teens, often accompanied by parents, report once a week to court, attend counseling and do community service. If they don't, there are swift and tough penalties. But when a probation officer came to his house to interview Tommy for the program, he was high. The drug court turned him down. But Missy Becker, juvenile services administrator at TASC, fought to get him in. He had an "attitude" and was a troublemaker in group counseling sessions, but she believed in him. "He was honest about his drug use and eventually about his hopelessness," she said. Tommy got into the program, but his troubles weren't over. When he made his first appearance last spring before Judge Foreman, Tommy lied and said he was straight. Foreman ordered a drug test on him, then placed him in detention for the weekend when it came back dirty. Tommy was so high that the levels were off the scale. "I was amazed and proud that the levels were so high," he said. But neither did he want to be sent to the Arizona Juvenile Department of Corrections, where he would be locked up until he was 18. The next week, the level of drugs in Tommy's system began to drop. By September, he was clean. "It's not easy, even now. There are always cravings," he said, both for drugs and money. "I made so much money, too much money," he added, playing with a gold chain his mother bought for him because he can no longer afford to buy things like that on his own. Tommy has slipped since beginning his rehabilitation last spring. Once, he went out with friends for the evening, sipped iced orange juice, then felt the urge for a beer. He dropped his friends off at home, then went to a liquor store. He drank a beer, then went on a drag race down McDowell Road. For a moment, it reminded him of the excitement of his earlier days. Then he saw a policeman's red light behind him. He was caught. The breath test showed a trace of alcohol in his bloodstream. His parents were livid. His father kicked him out for the night. He walked across the street and sat on a bus bench and thought about what to do. In the past, he said, he would have gone out and gotten high. But he didn't. "I'm tired of drugs," he said. The next morning, he went back home. That weekend, as part of his DUI class, he saw a grisly movie about drinking and driving. "It sunk in what could have happened if I had hit someone. It kept pushing me to sobriety," he said. Tommy insists that he won't slip again. "I know there are people who want to see me succeed. I don't want to let them down," he said. He still gets calls from teenagers who want to buy. He tells them, "I don't deal with that anymore." He's thinking about his future, and he has some advice for parents willing to listen. "Kids need to be busy," he said. "Keep them involved in sports, community service or church. Drugs are everywhere." Published: January 23, 2000Copyright 2000, Arizona CentralRelated Articles in Series:Rebuilding Broken Families - 1/23/2000 Money Targets Certain Demographic Groups - 1/21/2000's Different Overdose Changes Family - 1/22/2000 Phoenix Sting Paid Off for Cops - Part 6 - 1/21/2000 Led To Side Job as Arizona Drug Runner - 1/20/2000 Methods Have Place in Fight - 1/19/2000 Contest of Wits at U.S. Border - 1/18/2000 is Pipeline for Illegal Drugs - 1/17/2000 Losing Drug War - 1/16/2000 
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