If you have heard a more compelling opening to a keynote speech, I’d like to hear it.
That’s the way a conference of Drug Court experts was launched last Thursday in downtown Phoenix. When the CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals rose to speak, his words went beyond the coffee-and-Danish interlude that typically slogs by interminably as attendees wait for their first session.
No, C. West Huddleston III leapt to the task, less association executive and more welcoming preacher. And as attendees heard, he’s a preacher who struggled in the darkness long before he came to the light. (I met Huddleston once before, when he came to speak to the State Bar of Arizona about veterans courts.)
Regarding substance abuse, Huddleston reminded those in the room, “You stand in the gap between many people and death from this disease.”
“Instead of indifference, you bring compassion and understanding. You see beyond the chaos and wreckage” that characterize the user’s life.
And he knows about wreckage.
Huddleston recalled how his life at 20 was spiraling out of control. In May 1988, he said he was a “hopeless addict and alcoholic.” He had been arrested six or seven times, and he was absolutely miserable. He was scheduled to begin a court-mandated rehabilitation program—but he was wavering.
That’s when the phone in his Memphis apartment rang.
It was a woman he had known since he was a young boy. The friend, Erica, was in Florida, and she and her boyfriend had a large quantity of the drug Ecstasy to distribute in Memphis. Would West be interested in this lucrative business?
His response shocked even Huddleston as the words came out of his mouth: “I’m sorry, Erica, but I can’t. I’ve got to go to treatment tonight.”
Eleven months and five days later, the then 21-year-old graduated from his program, and “It absolutely saved my life.”
The story grew more remarkable when Huddleston added that Erica had been caught in a sting; her “boyfriend” turned out to be a DEA agent. She and others who had said “Yes” to her offer were convicted and sent to prison.
“I came that close to not having this life.”
And that is what a conference about Drug Courts is about, he said: saving lives. Sessions that followed included topics like substance abuse, veterans courts, juvenile courts, Native American populations, and prisoner re-entry issues.
Re-entry was on the mind of United States Attorney Dennis Burke, who also spoke. He described a re-entry task force organized by his office that strives for original thinking on this tough topic. (Disclosure: The author has served on that task force.) When he described the task force as “a coalition of the willing,” he could have as easily been describing the conference attendees.
Arizona Supreme Court Justice Robert Brutinel also greeted the attendees. He recalled his days as a superior court judge, and the impact that he could see that his court was making in a small community. He laughed as he said he is till greeted in the supermarket with exclamations like “You’re the Drug Court Judge!” and, simply, “This man changed my life.”
“You make a difference,” Justice Brutinel told those assembled. And that said it all.
(More photos from the event are on the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.)