A hard pill to swallow

By Frank Carroll


This is part one in a series of articles this newspaper hopes will highlight problems with our approach to drug addiction, penalties, laws and policies that cost South Dakotans millions of dollars and lifetimes of pain and heartache.

A group of legislators, potential candidates of State Attorney General, pain specialists, addiction experts and judges are working to reform South Dakota’s ineffective penal system and laws related to drug treatment and sentencing for drug-related crimes.

Some 2,000 people attended Rep. Craig Tieszen’s funeral Monday in Rapid City. It was huge by local standards.  Gov. Daugaard spoke for many of us when he eulogized Craig as a man who solved problems.

Daugaard mentioned that just two weeks ago Tieszen attended the Legislative Opioid Task Force with some of Gov. Daugaard’s staff, pursuing answers to some of the state’s most pressing problems.

In this case, managing the complexity of the penal system, the judiciary, the legislature and policies and regulations about legal and illegal drugs occupied more and more of Tieszen’s time.

The consequences for people who need drugs for legitimate purposes, like long-term pain control; for people who are addicts and can’t control their drug use and the resulting impacts on the community and families; and for the penal system are immense.

The sheer magnitude of the problem and the number of interactive interrelated parts are mind boggling, according to local law enforcement and drug court judges whose resources are limited, but who work daily to help non-violent drug addicts stay out of what one local family calls the “squirrel cage” or “endless maze” of offending and reoffending, sentencing and recidivism, not because the offenders can help themselves, but because the courts, the police and the community have nowhere to send addicts and no way to deal with the long-term needs of addiction treatment.

Doctors prescribe some of the drugs used for both legitimate and illegal purposes. Their practices are completely in line with state and federal guidelines. These seasoned, honest and concerned doctors are among the most aware of the problem.

Some legally-acquired prescriptions were sold by patients at $1 per milligram of medication to addicts. Most were used legitimately by people who can no longer function without effective pain killers, or  victims of misdiagnoses that resulted in a lifetime of improper diagnoses and compounding medical errors.

Faced with “zero tolerance” sentences, young, inexperienced state’s attorneys convinced accused drug offenders to plead to lesser sentences to avoid the 64-year sentences they could be handed at trial.

They are then sent from the local county courts to increasingly higher authorities in Springfield, where non-violent offenders are sent to “work release facilities” at Yankton, Rapid City or Sioux Falls.

These facilities reward non-violent offenders by offering them meaningful community jobs and punish addicts by giving them full access to drugs like K-2, synthetic marijuana.

These are drug offenders — addicts — people who live for the next fix. They are sent to non-violent facilities where they can have whatever they want. People close to the story say — and document — that our prisons and our penal system are the most abundant providers of drugs.

So, we have managed, in the period of the Drug Wars since the Reagan years, to both make drug offenses among the worst —pedophiles serve less time than drug offenders — and the most difficult to treat of all the felonies in South Dakota.

In fact, you have a better chance to receive help if you beat a policeman unconscious than if you voluntarily commit to asking for help.

Why? There’s no place to send you if you are an offender, much less a voluntary drug user or alcoholic.

Drug court judges and some rehab doctors share a common refrain: even if they want to help someone — and they do — there is nowhere to send either offenders or volunteer addicts who just want help.

There are no inpatient medically-supervised facilities, no long-term care services (One rehab doctor thinks one year is the minimum time needed to help someone successfully withdraw from chemical dependency), and no relief from laws that mandate sentences more than 50 years, far more than child sex offenders face.

Everyone agrees that’s the wrong formula. The legislature has not been able to address the problem. There’s no money, they say, and, besides, drug users should just say no. But they can’t say no. Like cancer patients, addiction is not a choice.

In the next few weeks, we will explore some of the aspects of this serious problem with legislators, lawyers, judges, police, families, prisoners and others who find themselves stuck in the whirlpool of injustice that currently defines South Dakota’s drug justice.