Recovering addicts take part in felony drug court

Court deals only with drug offenders through intensive judicial supervision


BEXAR COUNTY, Texas – A major weapon in the battle against opioid addiction in Bexar County is a place called felony drug court. It is what is called a "specialty court" that deals only with drug offenders through intensive judicial supervision.

Woven through this group of people in drug court is a lot of hurt, sadness, disappointment -- and hope.

"I was in a spot where I could be quiet and just listen to God and I got willing," said Paul Mullen, a former addict.

Mullen, now a second-year law student, is talking about his first days in drug court eight years ago.

"I got into Vicodin. I'd carry them around in a PEZ dispenser," Mullen said.

The pills were an answer to his troubles as a teenager.

"Addiction, in my mind, was never a problem. Addiction was the solution," Mullen said. “Using pills was the solution to the various problems. Girlfriend furious - take the pills. Parents are furious - take the pills. Failing out of school - take the pills."

Finding drugs, Mullen said, was easy.

"In that circle of friends that likes to party and does whatever, there was always somebody who you could get opioids from," Mullen said.

Weary of using and fearing jail time, Mullen asked to be sent to drug court.

District Judge Ernie Glenn runs the program. It's a combination of judicial oversight and treatment of a problem that has been on the increase.

Glenn said that he has seen a 50 percent increase in opioid addition over the past five years. He is firm but friendly, and insists on a commitment.

"A lot of it has to with just holding our clients accountable," Glenn said.

"This program and my girlfriend basically saved my life," said Alexander Winningham, a former addict.

Winningham was an athlete who loved to play basketball. His Vicodin abuse began, as often happens, innocently enough. He was being treated by a doctor for pain from a basketball injury.

"Folded my ankle under and just started getting prescribed Vicodin," Winningham said.

The prescription lasted long enough to become an addiction.

"Once that ran out, it's not hard here in San Antonio to find anything, just on the streets, anywhere," Winningham said.

He was hooked.

"It was never enough, you know?” Winningham said. “Even if I didn't feel pain I'd still just be numbing myself out."

Finishing up the first phase of the 18-month program here, Winningham is proud of his progress.

"Court every single week. I got class three days a week, I have individual counseling once a week," Winningham said. "It's like a job I'm not getting paid for, but it has immense benefits."

Princess Frago also gives the program rave reviews.

"I was in the streets. I was living the life that I never thought I would live," said Frago, a recovering addict.

Pills were not Frago's problem. She was hooked on heroin, an addiction that resulted in family problems, money problems and eventually, jail time.

"Now I know that God has a purpose for me. I'm here today. I'm alive. I've been sober for two years," Frago said.

She shares a similar back story of living on the streets as Ashley Mills. And she shares her commitment.

"I never give up. No matter what. Being here, walking through these courtroom doors, has taught me to never give up," Mills said.

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Keeping the program running is a challenge for Glenn, but he said he's optimistic about support both from the government and the medical community.

Participants are given a letter that must be signed by their doctor. It asks for their assistance.

"If they give them opioids and some other drugs it might just continue their addiction or make it worse," Glenn said.

Glenn is candid when it comes to the program's future.

"It's gonna take a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of treatment," Glenn said.

He's got a handle on the time and treatment. The money comes from grants and the government.

"We need the state. We need the county. We need the city. We need them all to step up," Glenn said.

The payoff, Glenn says, is worth the investment. He said the county has already saved millions.

"And it will continue to save millions as those people don't get re-arrested and go back through the criminal justice system," Glenn said.