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Drug court grads eye life of sobriety

“What type of trouble did I get into? What type of trouble didn’t I get into,” said Shana Pippin of Riverhead. “I did petty larceny, stealing from stores and gas stations, pretty much stealing from anywhere I possibly could. And it was definitely to either sell stuff to get money for drugs or to trade things for drugs.”

But now Ms. Pippin says she hasn’t used drugs since Oct. 2016, and on Tuesday, she was one of seven people to graduate from the East End Regional Intervention Court, better known as “drug court.”

“This saved my life,” she said Tuesday. “It gave me a way to start over. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t know how to not use drugs. So this gave me an opportunity to step away, so I can learn about my disease and what my triggers are; like, why do I keep doing the same thing, which is insane. It’s like saying ‘let me go run outside and run in front of a car’ every day.”

The East End drug court was started in 2004 by Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein and Riverhead Town Justice Allen M. Smith. Southold Justice Brian Hughes, Southampton Justice Andrea Schiavoni and Shelter Island Justice Helen Rosenblum now participate as well.

Attendance in drug court is available to defendants who have committed non-violent crimes, such as petit larceny, driving while impaired by drugs or drug possession, according to Judge Kooperstein.

The drug court’s success rate is over 50 percent, with success defined as having no arrests in five years, Judge Kooperstein said. The same rate for incarceration without treatment is well under 50 percent, she said.

Participants must stay clean of drugs, and maintain their sobriety for a year and be enrolled in either school or employment. They also must be in a drug treatment program for at least a year and make weekly visits before the judge.

“There are high mountains to climb,” Judge Kooperstein said. Those who graduate either have their charges dismissed or reduced to non-violent violations which are then sealed by the court.

“I started using drugs when I was about 14 or 15 years old,” Ms. Pippin said. “I started smoking marijuana. I continued smoking marijuana for about two years, and then it escalated to Percocet and Vicodin,” which are pain pills.

She said she was prescribed Vicodin by a dentist.

“I realized this is a lot easier than smoking weed,” she said.

Ms. Pippin was with two friends who were familiar with the drug court, and they were with her when she called Charlene Mascia, the drug court coordinator, at their suggestion and asked to be in drug court.

And Ms. Pippin said she wants to remain involved with drug court, even though she’s now graduated.

Others had similar stories.

“I was young and I was around older people and I just saw the experience, I guess, and I just started doing drugs,” said another graduate of the class, a Hampton Bays woman who asked not to be identified.

“I started with marijuana and drinking and then it took me to cocaine,” she said. She later started doing cocaine and ecstasy for a while, and when she was about 19, she started with painkillers.

“I was selling them and then I was doing them,” she said. “It just turned into a thing where I couldn’t stop. I realized I was addicted.”

She had two driving while intoxicated arrests before she was 19 and had previously graduated from the drug court when she relapsed, after about three years, and was arrested for heroin possession in Flanders.

Ms. Mascia said the drug court didn’t usually take back people who had graduated and relapsed, but this woman’s case made them rethink the policy.

At first, the woman didn’t want to go back to drug court, and chose jail instead. A visit from Judge Kooperstein at the jail convinced her to go back, she said.

“For her to show up was the main reason I joined,” she said.

“Marijuana is usually what they start with, at about 11 or 12 years old,” Judge Kooperstein said in an interview. “That’s what they tell us. That’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea to make it legal [for non-medical purposes], just because of everything I’ve seen.”

She said people who start using marijuana when they are under 25 often have severe memory loss problems.

Other drugs are more deadly, though, like heroin, which is often laced with fentanyl, which makes it more potent.

“It’s stronger and it’s cheaper so the drug dealers will make more money off it,” she said.

“I would not have my daughter without this drug court,” said Mike Meehan, a Hampton Bays resident whose daughter graduated from drug court.

He said he doesn’t believe in “gateway” drugs.

“I don’t think that matters,” he said. “It’s whatever drug people wind up getting exposed to. You can try to remove one drug but there are still ten others out there, and they are just going to start using something else.”

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Photo caption: Shana Pippin and Judge Deborah Kooperstein at Tuesday’s Drug Court graduation in Hampton Bays. (Tim Gannon photo)