In a matter of a few short years, Danielle MacPherson went from a bubbly high school cheerleader to a hard-core injection opioid user, a harrowing decline that eventually landed her in the justice system.

Last week, she was before a judge in Dartmouth, N.S., her latest appearance on assault with a weapon and mischief charges. But instead of being chastised for her offences, she was complimented on how great she looked.

"You look like you put on some weight!" exclaimed Pam Williams, the chief judge of provincial and family courts. "Your face is healthy, your hair looks healthy, you just look wonderful."

MacPherson, 26, is among the first participants in what might be the only court in Canada that's exclusively for opioid addicts who've broken the law. 

CBC News was recently given a rare look at the inner workings of the program.

Danielle MacPherson Dartmouth

MacPherson said she decided to get sober after being charged with mischief and assault. (CBC)

There are a handful of federally funded drug treatment courts in the country. Drug treatment courts do not emphasize punishment, and offenders who complete the program avoid jail time if they commit to getting clean. In rare instances offenders can have their criminal conviction wiped from their records.

This Nova Scotia program, which is not federally sponsored, is distinct from its counterparts: It is only for opioid users. It is also a symbol of the painkiller abuse epidemic in the province.

Scared into sobriety

Opioid treatment court set MacPherson, who also has bipolar disorder, on the path to recovery.

"I'm grateful, it's a second chance. It's what I needed," she said.

Prior to being accepted in the program in February 2016, she abused opioids for eight years, tried to kill herself six times and was hospitalized eight times for overdoses. Her arms and hands are tattooed with prayers, a mythical phoenix and the words, "This too will pass," across her knuckles.

Her charges stem from a fight with her boyfriend and it was the frightening possibility of prison that pushed her toward sobriety.

"I didn't want to be in jail," she said. "To be locked away with my own thoughts, I think, would be the most dangerous place for me to go."

Opioid court is like family

MacPherson looks forward to court, where participants listen to each other describe to the judge their recovery experiences. Counsellors and opioid treatment workers listen in.

During a recent appearance, Williams asked how MacPherson made it through Christmas with all the associated "stressors." MacPherson responded as if chatting with a friend.

"Yeah, before it's always landed in a mess.... Instead I just bit the bullet," she explained. "One of my goals is to reconnect with my family, where when I was using and stuff, I kind of lost that opportunity."

'When they stumble ... we all feel the effects'

Chief Judge Pam Williams

Chief Judge Pam Williams presides over the treatment court. (CBC)

Presiding over a drug court means expecting the unexpected.

Williams laughed during an interview with CBC News as she told the story of a woman who got her dog through courthouse security and then pulled the pooch out of her purse in praise of pet therapy.

Then there's the participant who shared with the court the benefits of music and hauled out his accordion to play a tune.

"We develop relationships with them and so when they stumble or they relapse, which often happens, we all feel the effects of it," said Williams, who is also chair of the therapeutic court committee of the Canadian Council of Chief Judges. 

Program graduates

Dartmouth's opioid treatment court began in 2014 to help offenders who didn't qualify for Nova Scotia's mental health court and whose crimes were related to addiction. A mental health addictions worker identified candidates motivated to participate in an individualized, therapeutic program and whose risks to the community could be managed.

So far, there have been 16 participants selected by the Nova Scotia Health Authority's opioid treatment program in Dartmouth. Two-thirds are men, the majority are under 34, and most have lengthy criminal records, ranging from theft to assaults and weapons offences.

They volunteered to take the program and pleaded guilty to their crime. They take methadone or Suboxone to tame opioid withdrawal, participate in addiction treatment, submit to regular urine tests and appear regularly before a judge for up to two years.

Drug court certificate Nova Scotia

A graduation certificate for the opioid treatment court. (Submitted)

Several have been let go or quit. Two others have graduated and were spared jail time. A third is expected to successfully complete the program later this month. Between five and seven people are in the queue waiting to get in.

"The graduates have turned their lives around significantly. They have jobs, they have meaningful relationships with others," said Williams.

No additional funding

The court was created with no additional funding and is a partnership between the Nova Scotia judiciary and the opioid treatment program, which is located across from the Dartmouth courthouse on Pleasant Street.

"We deal with the same crowd," said the chief judge. "When we work together we're able to be more supportive and provide better monitoring to them." 

Williams wants to see the program expanded around the province, and said federal funding would be helpful. 

The court, which is decorated with artwork created by people with addictions and mental health problems, is a passion for the chief judge. 

She pointed to MacPherson's progress — she's holding down a job, paying rent, and doing volunteer work with 7th Step, a self-help group for offenders. 

Danielle MacPherson Dartmouth mugshot

MacPherson's mugshot following her arrest for assault with a weapon. (Submitted by Danielle MacPherson)

This week, MacPherson looked at a police mug shot from the day she was arrested just before Christmas 2015.

"Horrible," she said. She barely recognized herself, and pointed to her messy hair and eyes that "have no life at all."

MacPherson hasn't chased a drug high since she started opioid treatment court, the longest she's been clean in her eight-year battle.

She said she guards against relapsing and is optimistic she'll make it to graduation. She hopes her slate will be wiped clean.

She hopes to start a career helping others who also battle addiction. She has a degree in psychology and a diploma in mental illness and addiction counselling.

And she has life experience. 

"Give back what was given to me, so that's the plan."

Corrections

  • There is a federally funded court-monitored drug treatment program in Kings County, Nova Scotia. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.
    Jan 19, 2017 12:01 PM AT