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Tennessee Drug Court Judge Imprisons Participants for Smoking Cigarettes

by Monte McCoin

In November 2017, Hamilton County, Tennessee Judge Tom Greenholtz sent several drug court participants to jail for a night after their drug tests came back positive – for nicotine.

“We routinely test for nicotine as we do for other controlled substances,” Greenholtz told Chattanooga TV station News Channel 9. “It shows how serious we are about combatting this.”

Ignoring the fact that nicotine is not a controlled substance and smoking cigarettes is not a crime, the judge said he punished defendants for smoking because he thought it would give them a “better chance at life.”

Indeed, a Columbia University study, published in 2017, found that 11 percent of people who kept smoking while in recovery programs relapsed, compared with around 8 percent who stopped smoking during treatment.

PLN has previously reported on growing scrutiny regarding drug court programs. For 20 years, they have sought to reduce illegal drug use by mandating substance abuse treatment within an overburdened criminal justice system that is generally more punitive than treatment-oriented. However, rather than diverting defendants to drug courts who otherwise would have gone to prison, participants tend to be those who would have received non-prison sentences anyway. Also, drug courts typically do not accept violent or repeat drug offenders, who also could benefit from structured substance abuse treatment.

Jailing drug court participants who smoke cigarettes is a new and disturbing practice, though. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go over well with people who took part in Hamilton County’s drug court.

“You’re taking up those cells, paid for by taxpayer dollars to put somebody in jail for failing a nicotine test? I mean come on,” said Paula Brazzell, who was addicted to opioids and continued to smoke during her recovery, which she said helped her during that process. 



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