Provincial Court Judge Nancy Orr is spot on when she suggests that simply by dropping by her courtroom MLAs could gain some real insight into the “incredibly devastating impact” addictions are having on Islanders.
Just a month earlier her colleague, Chief Judge John Douglas, spoke out about opiate addictions and how they are the underlying reason many people six of seven in his courtroom earlier that day are driven to commit criminal offences.
Every day these and other magistrates put faces to statistics that show drug use and addiction is becoming more widespread and that, according to Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee, it may be reaching “epic proportions.”
The mayor recently told a legislative standing committee that every robbery in Charlottetown for the past two years is directly related to narcotics addictions. And more than 90 per cent of property crimes in the city have an association to drug use, he said.
“This is a public health emergency worthy of a response equal to the worst plague in history,” the mayor was quoted as telling the committee. “The effects will be felt for generations if we do not act now.”
By adding their voices to the discourse, judges are helping to sharpen the focus on a problem that should be a concern not only to MLAs but to everyone who deplores the waste of human potential to senseless drug addictions and surely that’s every Islander.
The case that prompted Judge Orr to challenge lawmakers to attend court involved a woman who became addicted to prescription drugs that were prescribed by a doctor for a medical issue. After she became addicted, she turned to crime to feed the habit, committing a string of break and enters. And then, of course, she landed before the judge.
A similar case unfolded recently in P.E.I. Supreme Court and it hit close to home for a student reporter covering the trial. A man was given 27 months for conspiracy to traffic in hydromorphone. The court was told he became addicted to the drug as result of surgical treatment for a back injury. It sounded eerily familiar to the student reporter, a retired RN who, earlier this year, was introduced to regular doses of powerful painkillers after she broke her ankle. She knew how hard it was to wean herself off such strong medication, especially during her recovery when she received another prescription for 100 percocet. It wasn’t easy but she was able to taper her drug use and then stop completely. She still has pills in her closet and she says that’s where they’ll stay.
On arraignment days a steady parade of men and women stand before the judges and plead their innocence, admit guilt or are found guilty of crimes increasingly driven by drug addictions.
These aren’t actors off CSI, Cold Case or Law and Order, they’re ordinary Islanders drawn from every walk of life. Most of them are not strangers to us. They’re our friends and neighbours, our co-workers and sometimes, they’re members of our own or extended family.
Every fall I sit in on a couple of arraignment days with first-year journalism students, for many of them their first exposure to the court system. For most it’s a real eye-opener. There’s nothing that focuses attention like the sight and sound of a prisoner, shackled hand and foot, shuffling before the judge to learn his or her fate.
The stories they hear and report on are by times compelling, shocking, and sometimes heart-wrenching. It’s a reality check as well as an introduction to court reporting.
Seeing first-hand the impact of addictions the judges must deal with every day may well help legislators fashion better responses to the problem, whether it’s improved treatment for addicts and earlier intervention, or closer monitoring of prescribed painkillers and greater use of alternative medicines that aren’t so addictive.
Most of us will be happy if we never have to go to court but all of us not just MLAs could benefit from dropping by and seeing for ourselves exactly what the judges face every day.
- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.