- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

COUDERSPORT, Pa. (AP) - Mayor Shane Nickerson glanced around the courtroom, with its sea of aging, wooden pews, and began:

“My name is Shane and I’m an addict and alcoholic. I’ve been sober for 25 years.”

“Hi, Shane,” the roomful of drug court defendants and law enforcement officials called back.

For the next 30 minutes, all listened as Nickerson recounted his journey from teenage addict to mayor in charge of the same police force that once hassled him as a youth with a penchant for death metal, delinquency and drugs.

He was compelling and candid, a gifted public speaker who often appears destined for higher office.

For now, he is the mayor of Blossburg, a tiny town roughly an hour east of here on Route 6, a two-lane asphalt ribbon lined on either side by seasonal motels, one-horse towns and Marcellus Shale wellsites.

His drug history is common knowledge locally, and the townsfolk there speak glowingly of their mayor, a rare Democrat in a conservative stronghold. Many see him as an unconventional asset in the fight against a growing local drug problem.

That Blossburg is fighting this problem shows how much this national epidemic has spread, from urban areas and upper-middle-class suburbs, to rural areas far from any city.

But Blossburg straddles a new American fault line, too.

This as a nationwide opiate epidemic has divided public opinion on how to best deal with the users fueling it: Many who sell drugs like heroin to support their habits and who blur the lines between respective ends in a supply chain.

Drug courts or prison diversion programs like this one in Potter County have emerged in response to, or alongside, that debate. They offer convicts treatment instead of jail time, and embody the growing belief that drugs are a public health problem and should be treated as such.

This is the future of the War on Drugs, and it lives here, high atop the Allegheny Plateau in Pennsylvania’s rugged northern tier.

Nickerson, for one, saw it coming and believes it’s long overdue.

“I’m so impressed by what is going on here,” he told the court on a recent Tuesday, in a ceremony marking its first-ever graduation.

“Addiction is a disease,” he explained. “You can’t punish it out of us.”

‘What were we doing wrong?’

That morning’s session went as usual.

Senior Judge John Leete called the defendants forward, one by one, to press them on their commitment to sobriety, their patronage of required 12-step meetings, and their overall compliance with the rigors of the program.

Those include regular face-to-face meetings with Leete, a paternal and relentlessly upbeat presence, but someone who’s also been burned before.

Leete has lost young people he’s mentored to addiction, and watched as friends were forced to bury a son. He’s seen turnarounds, too, and just as often watched as that path toward enlightenment veered suddenly and irrevocably into darkness.

With that in mind, Leete pressed a young man in front of him that morning on his commitment to sobriety, let him know that he was watching and that he’s seen it all before.

“You scammed us, and honesty is a big thing here,” Leete scolded the young man.

“I need total honesty and total compliance,” he added.

The young man assured Leete he would not be disappointed before returning to his seat and then later to the larger, and for an addict more perilous, world beyond the courthouse’s walls.

It was one of nearly a dozen drug cases presided over by Leete that morning, along with the drug court’s first-ever graduation: That of a middle-aged man with a history of marijuana possession.

At the end of each appearance, defendants were applauded by the county’s top prosecutor, other law enforcement officials and by each other.

Meanwhile, Leete, a long-time jurist whose case history includes the Paterno family’s lawsuit against the NCAA, was a constant source of moral support.

“You’re starting to find there’s a little bit of heaven on the muddy road to freedom,” he said to one.

“We haven’t seen you smile much, but you seem pretty happy today,” he told another.

“We thought we were gonna lose you. I mean really lose you,” he admitted to a third. “We are all very proud of you.”

If this doesn’t sound like the American criminal justice system you know, that’s because it’s not.

This is an alternative to what has been done in the past, a different approach shaped by changing attitudes toward drug use and driven by a new breed of law enforcement agents who believe “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.”

That quote, misattributed to everyone from Einstein and Ben Franklin to Mark Twain, actually first appeared in a Narcotics Anonymous text in 1981.

But it is unlikely that even those authors could have ever envisioned the American drug epidemic as it exists today.

The meteoric rise of heroin addiction over the last decade, and some would argue its large-scale movement into white communities, has coincided with a reevaluation of decades’ worth of hard-nosed, Nixon-era enforcement methods, now viewed as draconian and misguided by an increasing number of Americans.

That rethinking of domestic drug policy has drawn the support of presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle this year and taken root in unexpected places, too.

This includes rural and conservative Potter County, where the progressive ideals inherent in such a venture seem wildly out of place.

But a closer look reveals a pristine wilderness suffering through the same scourge as everyone else: The same drug deaths, and the same obituaries with photos of young faces and the trademark euphemisms of “died suddenly” or “unexpectedly.”

In rural Pennsylvania counties, like Potter, hospitalizations for heroin overdoses jumped 315 percent between 2000 and 2014 (from 39 to 162) - far higher than the rate increase in urban counties. Rural hospitalizations for pain medications, meanwhile, rose 285 percent in that time (from 62 to 239).

Potter County’s court calendar has also brimmed with the same types of drug-related crimes seen elsewhere, many for simple possession, theft, or for positive drug tests representing probation or parole violations.

After years of this, and watching the same faces cycle in front of his bench time and time again, Potter County President Judge Stephen P. B. Minor said someone raised the question: “What were we doing wrong?”

‘It is what you make it’

The resulting discussion eventually led to the creation of a DUI specialty court, with funding from PennDOT in 2013, followed by the companion drug court in 2015.

Potter is the only eighth-class county in Pennsylvania with its own drug court. Eighth-class counties are the least populous in the state, with 20,000 or fewer residents, and officials say the addition of drug courts here proves the pervasiveness of Pennsylvania’s drug problem.

For Potter County, it was a radical departure and a tough sell at first, Minor said.

“Historically, the thought was ‘let’s lock them up and keep them away from us and that’s gonna make it go away.’ But ultimately and eventually they’re coming back out and if you haven’t dealt with the root issue it’s gonna manifest itself again.”

Minor had to convince members of the local community and law enforcement that the drug court would not amount to a “get out of jail free program,” but would instead be a rigorous “in-depth treatment” program focusing on the underlying causes of criminality and not just the effects.

“I talked to officers about their duty to protect and defend and said, ‘I think you’re gonna protect society by allowing us to get these individuals into treatment,” Minor said.

His pitch included statistics indicating that with incarceration alone, recidivism was almost 80 percent guaranteed. With similar treatment programs, he argued, that figure was closer to 30 or 40 percent.

Defendants accepted into the program must attend regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They must also hold down jobs or perform community service, attend twice to thrice-weekly meetings with a probation officer and twice-monthly meetings with judge Leete. They must also submit to regular drug tests and wear drug-sensing patches, Minor said.

“Some of the people in this program have told us they would rather have gone to jail than do this program because it is so intense, it is so demanding,” Minor said.

But many, he added, also find it works.

That morning, the program welcomed its newest member, a young man charged with selling 10 hits of LSD to an undercover police informant at a nearby trailer park. He was facing up to 22 years in prison. Instead, he’ll do 36 months in the program, assuming he commits.

“You’re lucky, man,” one participant told him.

“I have 20-some years on you, and they didn’t have drug courts back then.”

Another participant was more uplifting.

“Keep your head up,” he told the new recruit. “It will be tough, but it is what you make it.”

‘Suffer, pray or surrender’

A few rows back, Nickerson sat nodding.

He believes, as do others, that it takes a village to keep an addict clean. And so what he heard that day was encouraging.

“You’ve got to give it away to keep it,” he later explained.

Nickerson got clean himself at a younger age than most. He was 17 or 18.

But he had also started using drugs younger. His first drink came at the age of 10, a year after his parents divorced - “It was love,” he recalls of the feeling alcohol gave him. His first toke of marijuana followed at the age of 11. It was also “love,” he said.

From there he tried hallucinogens and eventually progressed to powders. By his late teens he was using cocaine daily.

Nickerson describes himself as an anxiety-ridden kid whose family moved a lot, who felt alienated from his peers, and who struggled in school, even failing the fourth grade.

He found drugs, the tonic of social misfits everywhere, and never looked back, he said.

But with his drug use escalating and family relationships suffering, he went to a rehab center in Monroe County in a half-hearted effort to straighten out.

It was there that he met the man who would change his life forever.

That man, a counselor named Kevin, singled Nickerson out early and often, accusing him of telling staff what they wanted to hear and of going through the motions.

The ideal patient, it seemed, was too ideal.

One day, Kevin asked Nickerson what he would be willing to do in order to stay clean.

“Would you cut your (long) hair?” Kevin asked.

“Anything but that,” Nickerson responded.

Kevin gave him a hypothetical next.

“If you could, if you had the power, what would you turn your worst enemy into?”

Nickerson, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, said he would make that person a tree, forced to live alone on a weather-beaten hilltop, away from other trees and exposed to the elements.

“You don’t know the first thing about sobriety,” Kevin shot back. “If I could turn my worst enemy into anything, it would be my best friend.”

The counselor’s voice grew louder and more intense.

“You’re one of the only ones in here with the possibility of staying clean,” he said. “Why do you think I’m on you about getting your haircut? I don’t care. It’s not about the hair. It’s about surrendering.”

“Suffer, pray or surrender,” he concluded.

The next day Nickerson cut his hair, he recalled in his recent speech before Potter County’s drug court.

He would later leave rehab and return to Blossburg.

He has been sober ever since.

‘A place to connect to’

Twenty-five years later, though, and Blossburg is changing around him.

“The economy has changed for the worse,” Keith Lindie, a local historian and 93-year-old resident, said of Blossburg over French toast at the Brick Tavern on Main Street.

Blossburg remains a highly picturesque place, however, and a “good place to raise a family,” locals say.

But other things are changing.

Schools have consolidated, likely under the same budgetary and enrollment constraints facing other rural districts. And places like the Brick Tavern, a neighborhood fixture for more than 70 years, are up for sale or closed already.

Drugs are also here now, and to a greater extent than ever before.

“No question drugs have made inroads into Blossburg. We’re battling it,” Lindie said, his French toast growing cold on the plate.

Becky Pequignot, 33, overheard from the lunch counter and chimed in.

“I think it’s starting as young as eighth grade, they’re trying heroin,” she added.

“I’ve lived here for 20 years plus and when I was a teen it was not prevalent. It was just marijuana and alcohol then.”

Now, she said, pills and hard drugs like heroin are increasingly the norm.

Northcentral Pennsylvania, the rural 10-county region including Tioga County, where Blossburg is located, saw the state’s largest percentage-wise growth in hospitalizations for heroin overdoses between 2000 and 2014, with a 509 percent increase, the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) reports.

It was against this backdrop that Nickerson ran for mayor in 2013 with a successful write-in campaign that even earned the support of his opponent, incumbent mayor John Backman. Nickerson went on to win with 80 percent of the vote.

Some voters say the drug problem was a concern and that Nickerson’s unique experience was somehow comforting to them.

Others say he was simply respected and recognizable as an active community member and owner of a successful roofing company. He has since opened a popular coffee shop on Main Street, as well, with his wife, Jill, at the helm. Jill is also a Blossburg councilwoman.

The two met 9 years after Nickerson got clean and would go on to marry and have three children.

It was also Jill who in 2013 urged him to run for mayor, sensing his desire to serve and its compatibility with working the 12-steps, he said.

“It’s how I’m gonna to continue to stay clean,” he said of pushing for drug policy reform and of spreading the gospel of recovery. Nickerson has also identified economic revitalization as a focus of his inaugural term as Mayor.

After taking office, Nickerson convened roundtables on the subject of the current drug epidemic. He also spoke at a senate hearing on the issue at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford in April.

He works at the micro-level, too, and has been known to meet with addicts taken into custody by Blossburg police and to present them with options, like treatment instead of charges.

In doing so, he has emerged as an unofficial bridge between the local police department and an underworld they have historically sought to control but failed to fully understand.

“I said to one guy, ‘We have three years to file these charges.’ I said, ‘You can either take the charges and let the court system do what they will. … Or you can go to treatment and if you stay clean you’ll never see these charges.’”

The arrangement had the blessing of a local judge and police, Nickerson said, and the man ultimately chose treatment.

He is currently clean and sober with a job.

“He might not make it, but we planted the seed,” Nickerson added.

“He knows there’s a safe place to go. He knows that there’s a place to connect to.”

‘The beginning of something really big’

As Nickerson sat in Potter County’s drug court on that recent Tuesday morning, waiting for his turn to speak, he reflected on the changes taking place both inside of the courtroom and out.

He’s pushing for a similar drug court in his home county of Tioga and thinks the timing could be right given the changing political and public discussion about addiction and the ongoing erosion of stigmas.

He said people and politicians are both now acknowledging that “(Addiction) is a disease and we’ve got to do something different. This isn’t working.”

“That could have happened 10 years ago,” he added, “but nobody had the nerve to do it. It should have happened 10 years ago. They’re saying things I’ve been saying (and other people) have been saying for decades.”

He continued, “But I’m encouraged, man, I think we’re at the beginning of something really big. … I know people who were locked up for forever because of this thing.”

He was interrupted mid-thought by judge Leete calling him to the front of the room.

Leete introduced Nickerson and turned the floor over to him.

People filtered in from outside and others quickly found their seats.

The room eventually fell silent and after a brief pause, Nickerson began:

“My name is Shane,” he said aloud. “And I’m an addict and alcoholic. I’ve been sober for 25 years.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/28W2DQY

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Information from: Pennlive.com, http://www.pennlive.com

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