Paul Ridenour, a client of the Moffat County Drug Court, said he takes life day by day, confident that with help he can get up after any fall. Ridenour was addicted to methamphetamine for 25 years but said Drug Court has been one of the biggest reasons he has been able to change his life.

Photo by Shawn McHugh

Paul Ridenour, a client of the Moffat County Drug Court, said he takes life day by day, confident that with help he can get up after any fall. Ridenour was addicted to methamphetamine for 25 years but said Drug Court has been one of the biggest reasons he has been able to change his life.

Moffat County Drug Court helps residents overcome addictions

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— One of the funny things about Moffat County Drug Court is that even though it's still court, complete with a judge and probation officers, Paul Ridenour looks forward to going.

Ridenour is 44, and up until recently, he was working on a 25-year-long methamphetamine addiction.

Then, not so subtly, change entered his life.

"I was arrested with 11 other people about two years ago in a one of these drug busts," Ridenour said. "Because of that, I had a probation revocation for a previous conviction and I was facing two to six years in prison."

Of course, the first thing that entered his mind was fear.

"I was 42 years old," Ridenour said. "That's a big part of a middle-aged man's life if I got the full six."

When he was offered a chance to participate in the Drug Court's intensive treatment program instead of going to prison, Ridenour jumped at the chance.

Drug Court is a local rehabilitation program that includes mandatory court appearances twice each month, frequent counseling, addiction classes and other requirements.

Although the threat of prison was part of his motivation, Ridenour said he knew he wanted to change, even if it took Drug Court's huge commitment.

It wasn't long before he stopped thinking like an addict and realized he needed real help.

"The tipping point for me was when I was in treatment at the very beginning," Ridenour said. "I realized I wasn't hurting myself. I was hurting everybody around me.

"Meth, it's the most evil drug I've ever seen or done in my whole life. It changes your whole personality, how you think. You rob, you steal, you lie. The people that really love you, your real friends, you manipulate them."

Recently, the program has faced some criticism after the arrest of former Craig Police Detective Ken Johnson.

Johnson is charged with three felonies in Moffat County Court, one of which stems from him helping local woman Tausha Merwin violate her probation while she was a Drug Court client.

Merwin also faces a felony charge in connection with the former detective's arrest.

Ridenour said that while Johnson's actions may give some in the community doubts, his and Merwin's problems have nothing to do with him or Drug Court.

"I think the Drug Court program saved my life," he said. "I honestly believe that."

And Ridenour hopes his life will never be the same.

"People trust me now," he said. "They call, they check, they hold me accountable and want to know how I'm doing. In the other lifestyle, nobody cared about anything but how fat a sack you have or how much money you have.

"I was a needle-user. I was a junkie. I'm no better than the worst junkie on the street. I don't want anyone to think I feel like I'm better than them, now or ever. I just decided I needed to change my life because if I didn't change, I was going to end up in jail or dead."

After 21 months with Drug Court, Ridenour expects to graduate in February or March, clean and sober.

Through his time in the program, he said he had one relapse last December. A few days after he used, he went into the Moffat County Courthouse and told his probation officer and a judge all about it.

"It wasn't easy," Ridenour said. "I could've faced prison, but I had to do it. There was some shock, some disappointment. I understand now there is a lot of disappointment that goes along with those people's jobs. But there was a lot of compassion from them because I was honest, and I needed help."

Judge Michael O'Hara, chief judge for the 14th Judicial District and the only judge who conducts Drug Court, gave Ridenour several sanctions for his transgression, including 30 days in Moffat County Jail and more months in treatment.

O'Hara said he sometimes faces the disappointment that Ridenour talked about, but he doesn't dwell on the letdowns when he goes to work each day.

"I think people who are inclined to be involved in this stuff - whether you are an attorney, caseworker, mental health provider - you have to have a basic belief in the goodness of people," O'Hara said.

The local Drug Court is only for people with some of the worst problems, he said. Every Drug Court client must be a repeat offender, and they must be facing a felony charge that could send them to prison.

Part of the program's selectiveness comes from funding, in that the Drug Court has none and can't see everybody, O'Hara said.

The other part is many people don't need the level of intensive counseling and monitoring the program requires, he added.

But for those who do need significant help and want to change their lives, Drug Court officials want to help.

"The investment of time into human beings is worthwhile," O'Hara said. "Sometimes, the time spent is not successful, and sometimes people are sent to prison. Prison is when we run out of any other options for folks, and it's an unfortunate moment.

"On the other side of the spectrum, you see people who, perhaps, parts of the system have given up on them. When those people overcome, in spite of very serious odds stacked against them, it's inspiring."

O'Hara and other court staff, from attorneys and Moffat County Probation officers who spend time working with Drug Court, are not the only ones who value the program's mission.

"The whole Drug Court program in Craig really started as a groundswell in the community," O'Hara said. "It had strong support from the law enforcement community because they were seeing the same faces all the time. What we were doing was not working."

The Drug Court now has seven active participants, three females younger than 30 and four males in their 40s.

The program has graduated three people, one of whom was Merwin.

Evidence against her and Johnson, the former detective who helped her violate probation, alleges she began using cocaine and other drugs after graduating from Drug Court.

O'Hara said he could not comment on pending criminal cases, but he would be saddened if the allegations against Merwin and Johnson are true.

At the same time, O'Hara said their situation has no bearing on the program's current clients.

As much as Ridenour credits Drug Court with his ability to move past drug abuse, fellow client Greg Bauer does the same.

"I was facing a year in prison for a possession charge," said Bauer, 41. "That would have been clean time, but it wouldn't have helped anything."

Before his arrest about two years ago - which was his first in 20 years of addiction - Bauer said he considered himself a different kind of user. He would smoke meth to go to work because the high gave him energy.

He was, in his mind, a functioning addict.

"That was part of my problem, that I thought I was unique or different," Bauer said. "When I first got in trouble, I thought I'd do a 28-day rehab and that'd be good. I got high the day I went in, and I got high the day I got out."

His time in rehab and the immediate relapse afterward showed Bauer that he needed more help.

Once he was in the program, Bauer said Drug Court became his salvation.

"They don't set you up for failure," he said. "With regular probation, they set you up for failure. There are no free passes. One hot (urine test) and that's it, you go to prison. That's the difference in Drug Court, they don't expect anything to happen overnight."

Now sober, Bauer said the differences in his life range from small, almost imperceptible changes to shuddering epiphanies.

"I have an 8- and 9-year-old niece and nephew that I see now," he said. "I didn't realize how much they really notice you're not there. It's just amazing to be with them. I realize what it's like to be clean with them."

Without the support of family and people who work with Drug Court, Bauer said he doesn't know if he would make it.

"Most people don't see a judge and a probation officer as supportive," he said. "There, they support everything you want to do. They'll help you with it, whether it's work or your living situation.

"Today, I still can't believe I actually look forward to going there, but it's because I'm on the right path. I do what's right, not just because they ask me, but because it's what I want to do.

"That's the biggest thing Drug Court has done for me."

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