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‘It’s when a light gets turned on’: Red Deer man credits recovery to Drug Treatment Court

A Red Deer man is looking forward to the future after becoming the first person to graduate from the Central Alberta Drug Treatment Court Program.

In 2022, Andrew Rathwell was facing three years in prison for drug trafficking. Instead, he became the first person to go through Drug Treatment Court (DTC) in Red Deer.

DTC was introduced by the Alberta Court of Justice in 2005 and was adopted in Red Deer in 2021.

The program offers substance-abuse rehabilitation instead of jail time, aiming to break the cycle for people who commit crimes driven by addiction.

Rathwell said his life before the program “wasn’t much of a life,” and he’s grateful for the opportunity to change it.

“I was just a shell of a person just on repeat, repeating the same horrible cycle over and over again,” he said.

Trish McAllister-Hall, program manager of the Central Alberta Drug Treatment Court, said programs like DTC exist across North America and target non-violent repeat offenders like Rathwell.

“He was tired of the lifestyle, he was tired of his addiction. He was tired of being in and out of jail, and that’s what we hear from a lot of people,” McAllister-Hall said.

Like many participants, Rathwell joined to avoid jail. In the process, he said he learned a new set of skills and found a new outlook on life.

“The beautiful thing is once you see that you can have a better life without drugs or that lifestyle, once you see what you can do with the security of housing and food, that’s normally when people start to see potential,” he said. “It’s when a light gets turned on.”

The program runs between 12 and 24 months. It includes residential treatment, community service, and classes in relapse prevention and criminal and addictive thinking.

It also offers participants the chance to learn life-skills like financial literacy and parenting, and helps them connect with their community – something Rathwell said has been particularly important for his recovery.

“The reconnection with my family, that was a really big one,” he said. “I did not expect my family to want anything to do with me.

“When I got a hold of my sister and she was OK with it, and she showed her support – I mean, that was the first time I cried in probably 10 years.”

Because Rathwell was the first person to go through the central Alberta DTC, McAllister-Hall said his experience and time with her has helped shape the program.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, she added, but ups and downs are part of the recovery process.

“We spent a lot of time together because he was the first participant, he was a bit of my guinea pig in terms of building the program,” McAllister-Hall said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better first participant to go through the program and be a role model for other individuals.”

The Alberta Court of Justice reports around 80 per cent of DTC participants graduate from the program, and an estimated 70 per cent will not reoffend.

Now that he’s graduated, Rathwell has plans to finish his upgrading and apply to study psychology at Red Deer Polytechnic.

McAllister-Hall said she’s so proud of what Rathwell has accomplished and how he’s changed his life.

“I get emotional when I talk about it,” she added. “To see him put in the work, to see him really, really give himself over to the program and give himself over to this process of change, has been incredibly inspirational to me and makes me really, really proud to know him.”

Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie also have DTC programs.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Adel Ahmed 

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