Drug Courts: A Primer for the Family Physician

James E. Lessenger, MD, and Glade F. Roper, JD


J Am Board Fam Med. 2002;15(4) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Background: Drug courts are a judicial response to drug-related crimes. They combine the coercive powers of the judiciary with drug treatment. This article is intended to familiarize physicians with the reasons why drug courts exist, what they are, and how physicians can assist their patients who are clients of a drug court.
Methods: Methods for this article are based upon personal experience and a search of the literature using the key words "drug rehabilitation," "drug abuse," and "criminal justice system."
Results: Using a three-phase approach, drug courts emphasize urine drug testing, rapid punishment for specific infractions, and therapeutic interventions. Drug courts have greatly reduced criminal and drug-using recidivism.
Conclusion: Drug courts are effective in resolving the criminal and drug-using behaviors in drug-only, nonviolent offenders. Family physicians can become involved in the drug court process by providing treatment for patients with both drug addiction and mental health diagnoses. In addition, as patients withdraw from drugs, it is important to treat withdrawal symptoms to prevent recidivism and encourage participation in the program.

Drug courts are a judicial response to the increasing numbers of drug-related crimes in the criminal justice system. They combine the coercive powers of the judiciary with drug treatment to resolve the criminal action by helping defendants withdraw from drugs and keep them drug-free.

This article is an introduction for family physicians caring for drug court clients in their practices. Physicians might be called on to assist in the treatment of addiction, medically assist patients in withdrawal, provide treatment for patients with the dual diagnoses of mental illness and addiction, and treat diseases associated with drug-use, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.

Drug courts are limited to nonviolent defendants arrested for drug-only offenses, such as possession and transportation of drugs, intoxication, and possession of paraphernalia. Typically excluded are offenses involving drug sales, violence, or a victim other than the person using the drugs. Drug courts originated in Dade County, Fla, as a response to rampant drug use, drug-related crime, and jail overcrowding.[1]