It is estimated that 20% of people who go into treatment and 12 step meetings are forced there by the legal system. If you find yourself in the legal system due a drug charge or DUI, or if you are in a fight for custody of your children and your ex has accused you of a substance use problem, it is likely that you will be mandated to attend support group meetings. In most municipalities that means you must attend AA or NA meetings for specified period of time, and then provide proof that you are attending these meetings. You usually are given a sheet that must be signed by someone at the meeting, such as the meeting chairperson or the group’s GSR (General Service Representative – this is the group’s leader or administrator). If this happens to you, it’s important to know your rights.
Mandating by the legal system to AA/NA is unconstitutional and has been ruled as such in some states.
While it is true that there are states such as New York and Tennessee where the highest courts have ruled that mandating AA/NA meeting attendance by a legal authority is a violation of the Establishment Clause in the constitution (prohibits government mandated religion), nearly all states including New York still engage in this practice, albeit in a more indirect manner. In these states people are typically mandated to a treatment program that is based on the 12-step model and that treatment program then makes participation in AA/NA meetings a mandatory component in their treatment. Therefore if you are mandated to treatment, which then mandates you to meetings, you must prove to the treatment provider that you attended those meetings and they will, in turn, tell the legal entity that you are compliant with your treatment. Most people don’t have the time or resources to challenge this end-run-around constitutional violation, so they work to do what they feel they have to do to fulfill their legal obligations. BUT please know that in states where the precedent has been set, all people have the right to refuse to attend AA/NA meetings and by default treatment that is based on the 12 step program. They have the right to demand an alternative program, which can be difficult to find, but do exist.
You Can Just “Play the Game”
Most people choose to simply play the game, do their time, and then move on with their lives. If you must go to meetings, you can choose to make the best of it. Perhaps you’ll meet a nice person, have an awful cup of coffee and share a smoke with someone whose life is a bigger train wreck than yours. You’ll likely find some good old fashioned gratitude for your own life while at a meeting. But I do advise caution; some of the rhetoric and storytelling can be quite compelling. You may go in with strong resolve and self-confidence, certain that you don’t have a disease and are not powerless, but the book Alcoholics Anonymous and the meetings are specifically designed to break you down and make you feel like you need them. Your self confidence may be thrown in your face as strong evidence that you are suffering from the disease. It is seen as a negative, and you may be told that you are in denial, because as they say “no one ends up here (in the rooms) by accident.” Make no mistake taking on a belief in powerlessness helps no one. Stick to your guns; no matter how it’s measured, it is far better for you to believe you can control your consumption of substances than to believe that you can’t.
Don’t Get Trapped in the System
If you have the means, make sure you hire an attorney that is not complicit in the drug and alcohol treatment mandating system. Far too many defense attorneys seem to be working for the system rather than representing their clients and protecting their clients’ rights. In these attorneys’ defense, I’m sure they feel as if keeping their clients out of jail is paramount, which it can be, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of their clients’ civil rights. In many cases a short stint in jail is far better than months in treatment followed by years in meetings. And just because you may be mandated to a 28-day treatment program, do not assume that you will get to do your 28-days and be done with it. If you have financial means and/or good insurance a 28-day rehab stay may turn into several months or more costing you precious time and tens of thousands of dollars. Often times when addiction treatment is offered in lieu of jail, you must agree to several years of probation during which time you’ll be trapped in the treatment system, regularly drug tested and barred from using any substances at all. Even one seemingly innocent glass of wine, a legal substance, can turn into a probation violation, jail time or another stint in a pricy rehab if the wrong person sees you. Then the probation clock starts all over again.
Don’t get me wrong, those who break the law should suffer the consequences of their offense. Those involved in legal battles over child custody, divorce or other legal matters usually bear some responsibility for their predicament, and thus must do what they need to do to work through it. This article is not to say there shouldn’t be consequences for problems we cause others, but forced treatment through the courts is an abysmal failure, and forced attendance at 12-step support group meetings like AA and NA is a violation of your rights. And furthermore, it’s harmful. You have the right to refuse to participate in 12-step based treatment and meetings regardless of your legal situation.