BY KEN LITTLE
It's unusual to see so many smiling faces in a crowded courtroom.
But that was the case Thursday as four individuals received well-earned recognition during the Greene County Drug Court graduation ceremony.
"We have a great mix of folks here. We have a happy day here in the courtroom with loved ones," said General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr., who oversees Drug Court.
The accomplishments of two men and two women who met the stringent Drug Court guidelines and are now living productive lives were celebrated with family and friends. Hugs and tears marked the graduation ceremony.
But before the certificates of completion were handed out, those present heard a compelling message from Dr. Stephen Loyd, who was guest speaker at the event.
Loyd is a native of the Telford-Limestone area of Washington County, and is currently Associate Chief of Staff for Education at the James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home.
He oversees the academic and affiliation programs at the VA center, including Graduate Medical Education and Associated and Allied Health Education programs.
He serves as liaison to the East Tennessee State University College of Medicine for training issues and sits on committees relevant to residency education.
'THIS DISEASE TAKES EVERYTHING'
Loyd, who has been in successful recovery from a narcotics addiction for several years, told those present that, before getting help for his addiction, he came close to losing it all.
"This disease takes everything. It takes our cars, it takes our houses, it takes our families," he said.
Before his father intervened over eight years ago, "I was dying," Loyd said.
Loyd said he started out taking a small dose, and ended up having to take hundreds of narcotic pills a day.
When he began taking pills, "I felt normal for the first time," Loyd said.
But the narcotics quickly took hold and began to dominate all aspects of his life.
Loyd believes genetic factors play a major role in determining who becomes addicted to pills or alcohol.
"We understand very little of the human brain." he said. "These drugs are incredibly powerful."
So powerful, he said, "I got away from feeling real feelings. It takes more drugs to have the same effect."
Within three years of beginning his use of opiate pills, Loyd said he was taking many times the original dose to get the same feeling.
"I looked like a concentration camp survivor," he said. "I was afraid I would die in my sleep, and I half prayed I would die in my sleep."
Loyd has been in successful recovery for more than eight years. He said there are better alternatives to address drug addiction than being locked up in jail or prison.
"Maybe it's time we looked into treatment," he said. "(People) keep going through the criminal justice system with no tools to handle life on life's terms."
Drug court volunteers and law enforcement "are not out to get you," Loyd said.
Concerned family members and friends who want an addict to enter recovery "are not out to get you," he added.
"I was the problem," he said.
Loyd offered some advice to the graduates:
"Change everything. Change the people that you hang around with," he said. "Get outside yourself (and) help somebody else get what you got."
Loyd said many Greene County residents have a drug problem. It's the same in neighboring counties.
"If there was a buckle to the Oxycontin belt, it would be here," he said.
If a person slips, "run to the people who helped you in the first place," Loyd said.
Addicts "go to unbelievably bad places," Loyd said. "We accept crumbs.
"I want to be able to belly up to the table to have a full meal, and this is the place to do it."
The two women and two men who graduated from Drug Court have been clean for six months to 18 months. All had family members present for the ceremony, including many small children.
"You've done a lot of good work, and we're excited you and your families are here together," Bailey said.
The graduates were grateful for a second chance.
"Thank you to everyone," one woman said. "I have a chance to live life now."
Another man said his feeling of gratitude was "overwhelming."
"Everybody in this room has had a hand in my sobriety. This program has given me a jump-start into life," he said.
The key to recovery for one Drug Court graduate was found among the people he once regarded as adversaries.
"When I started to use the Drug Court team as assets, as friends ... that's when it really started working for me," he said. "This program gave me the tools for sobriety."
Another graduate shed tears when she described getting custody of her children back.
"This program has taught me a lot of things. It has taught me how to manage my life," she said. "I really appreciate everybody in this room just not just giving up (on me)."
Sheriff's Deputy Chris Shepard, a member of the Drug Court team who provides court security, had mixed feelings about seeing the graduates go.
"You do get attached to people," he said.
Shepard and others recall how individuals appear when they're new in Drug Court and fresh out of the court system.
"They're looking rough," he said. "You see that transition. These are beautiful people when they're clean."
FOUNDED IN 2004
Greene County Drug Court was founded in 2004 by then-General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Tom Wright, now a 3rd Judicial District Circuit Judge.
It was initially called DUI Court, with the stated purpose of rehabilitating repeat DUI offenders.
The court was expanded to its current form in 2006, when Bailey took over stewardship of the program.
A 2011 state evaluation gave Greene County Drug Court highly favorable reviews, which are backed up by the low recidivism rate for program graduates.
More than 79 percent of Drug Court graduates do not appear in court again on charges related to drugs or alcohol, Bailey said.
All members of the local Drug Court panel are volunteers. They come from different professional specialties, but share the same commitment to help participants succeed.
"The team that we have here in Drug Court is a phenomenal team. Everybody brings something to the table," Bailey said.
Drug courts are six times more likely than jail or other programs to keep offenders in treatment until they overcome their addiction, studies have shown.
That success rate may be because of the accountability that participants must show in Drug Court, which has four phases.
To graduate, a minimum of 12 months of participation in the program is required, with no failed drug tests the last six months prior to graduation.
Other requirements include obtaining a high school diploma or GED, and successfully completing all treatment and aftercare.
Eighty percent of all criminal offenders abuse drugs or alcohol, according to judicial officials.
About 60 percent test positive for drugs or alcohol at the time of arrest. And 50 percent of those in prison meet the definition of the term "addict."
Loyd said Drug Court gives participants the tools to change their lives.
"I enjoy my life so much more than I did," he said.
Drug Court team members include Bailey, Shepard, Greeneville lawyer Ed Kershaw, Drug Court Coordinator Jeff Poore, Outgoing Coordinator Mattie Rasnake, Circuit Court Clerk Pam Venerable, Greeneville police Detective Lt. Pat Hankins, Assistant District Attorney General Chal Thompson, counselor Cindy Tvardy of Frontier Health, counselor John Toney of Comprehensive Community Services, counselor Bennie Ray of Comprehensive Community Services, and Greene County Detention Center representative Angela Morgan.
Also attending the graduation ceremony were Drug Court founder Judge Wright, former Drug Court Coordinator Mattie Rasnake, and Jancie Painter and Wendy Hankins, two members of the Greeneville Cumberland Presbyterian Church group that assists Drug Court participants in learning life skills.