On Aug. 20, when the state Legislature gets back to work on an overdue budget, Oliver Hamilton will be in Chicago, helping his ailing 90-year-old mother move out of the family home and into an assisted-living facility. Mom's doing well, he said over the phone, but he's on 'pins and needles' about what might happen in Sacramento next week.
'They tried to do this before and it never works,' he said, doing his best to keep cool despite the Midwest heat. 'Every year they always try this last-ditch effort.'
Hamilton's referring to Senate Republicans' proposal last month to cut deep into social programs to balance the state's budget. Included in those cuts is all the funding for Prop. 36, the drug-treatment program that Hamilton credits for saving his life. Since he completed treatment two years ago, Hamilton's become something of an evangelist for the program--last year he founded San Diego County's Prop. 36 Alumni Association, a volunteer group of Prop. 36 graduates who provide outreach and support to folks in recovery.
Now in its sixth year, California voters approved Prop. 36 in order to divert non-violent drug offenders from jail to treatment under the theory that doing so would save money. In April, a state-commissioned report out of UCLA found that for every $1 spent on treatment, taxpayers saved $2.50 in incarceration and other addiction-related law-enforcement costs. But, as a recent L.A. Times editorial put it, the program remains a 'qualified success'--a little more than one-third of the people who start treatment under Prop. 36 actually finish. The UCLA study urged lawmakers to increase funding for the program and outlined several ways that more money could result in better outcomes and additional long-term savings.
When CityBeat first spoke to Hamilton, he'd recently been up to Sacramento to talk to lawmakers about increasing Prop. 36 funding. Up until the end of July, it looked like those efforts had paid off: A budget committee agreed to add $20 million to the Prop. 36 budget over last year's allotment. Then the state Assembly cut that increase plus took out $20 million more. Then the Republicans suggested chopping the remaining $120 million, which, combined with cuts to welfare, foster-care and disability-assistance programs, balanced the budget.
It's unlikely Prop. 36 funding will be cut entirely. If it is, the state might face lawsuits from program participants or counties that could be forced to pick up the costs, said Margaret Dooley, interim Southern California regional director for the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that advocates for the reform of drug laws.
'The law says that if I am convicted of simple drug possession and I have no violent history, that I am eligible for treatment. And I'm not talking an AA meeting,' Dooley said, 'I'm talking state-licensed treatment. If they can't offer me outpatient care, then they're in breach of the law.'
'We might end up getting less money' for Prop. 36, Hamilton said, 'but somehow or another we will succeed, but it's becoming harder and harder each year.... You talk about fighting the system. If the system would stop fighting a program, truly, truly we would have far higher numbers [completing treatment] than we have now.'
Before he left for Chicago, Hamilton made sure that Dept. 22, the downtown San Diego courtroom where Prop. 36 participants periodically check in with a judge, had a stack of his alumni-association business cards. Since he dropped off an initial 650 cards a year or so ago, everyone who graduates from Prop. 36--and there are 2,000 people currently enrolled--gets one of Hamilton's cards.
Deputy Tony Parra, Dept. 22's bailiff, is the one who hands out the cards. Parra points out that Hamilton's photo is up in the courtroom and he's well-known in the Prop. 36 community--'a fantastic story,' Parra says. In 12-step recovery, he says, 'the 12th is giving back.' He's started to give out Hamilton's number to people who are close to finishing the program but are struggling and could benefit from Hamilton's support.
It took Hamilton a decade and four passes at treatment before he was able to kick his dependence on alcohol and cocaine. Since his first attempt to get clean in 1994, he'd entered treatment programs voluntarily and never spent more than a few days in jail. Then, in 2004, he failed to appear in court on an illegal-lodging charge and a warrant was issued for his arrest. One day, he was riding in a van with some friends when the driver made an illegal U-turn. There were drugs in the van, too. Hamilton calls that U-turn and the fact that a police car was nearby 'divine intervention.'
'I looked back and I knew [the officer] was going to cut his lights on and come get us,' he said.
The cop ran the IDs and came back to the van. 'I jumped up and put my hands behind my back,' Hamilton recalls. 'I said, 'You know, I've got a Prop. 36 violation.' He goes, 'Are you ready to go back to treatment?' And I says, 'Man, am I ever.'
'I was so tired, so tired, but you can't stop because the drugs have got such a hold on you. It's like, you go to sleep and you wake up and you're kind of like halfway clean and you don't want to use, but your body's saying, Come on, get up, it's time to get us some dope. And then, right then when you use, you go, Oh man, I did it again.'
A 12-year Navy veteran, Hamilton enrolled in Veterans Village of San Diego's treatment program. This October will mark two years since he graduated from Prop. 36.
'If you had sent me to Donovan [state prison] for 18 months, I would have truly come out a better criminal,' he said. 'I would have learned how to better my habit.'
Shortly before he finished treatment at VVSD, he was walking past the program director's office and heard a woman asking how she could get in touch with some of the program's graduates. The director was hesitant because of confidentiality issues. Hamilton waited outside and introduced himself as she was leaving. The woman was Margaret Dooley. The two met a couple of weeks later at a coffee shop and came up with the idea to start a local alumni group.
'While people are in jail waiting for their court date, they hear a lot of negative things,' Dooley said. 'But when they can get to court and hear some positive stuff from people who have completed the program, then it does help people kind of open their minds. To look at a person who graduated from the program, sometimes it's one more kind of encouragement that can help them remember that if they put in the hard work, they've got a shot at recovery.'
'Make some short-term goals for yourself' is what Hamilton tells addicts who are having a hard time staying sober. 'Give it one day at a time. You want to leave? OK, I'll tell you what--just finish today and you can leave tomorrow. Tomorrow comes, give it one more day.
'I tell people, 'Been there, done that two or three times,'' Hamilton says. He estimates that he spent a quarter of a million dollars on three decades of addiction. 'Coming back to reality is not easy and that's why some people don't make it.'