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Thomas Vickers started using marijuana when he was 15. And over the next three decades, he always seemed to get hooked on something — meth, cocaine and alcohol.

Until recently, he hasn't been clean for more than five months at a time. His addictions have led him to a life of crime — robberies, domestic assaults, burglaries, thefts and other offenses. According to state records, he has spent about 5,000 days in prison — nearly 14 years. His drug addictions have rung up a huge tab for taxpayers.

Though he's clean now, his stays in jail and state prison alone have cost the public nearly $500,000, based the state's current average cost of housing prison inmates, $91.49. And this tally doesn't include the costs he's run up in police and court attention or the losses to society in crime, wasted lives and shattered families.

And Vickers is not unusual. There are thousands of addicts like him in Cowlitz County and across the nation, draining away money and human potential.

“I feel bad that people have to take the time out to babysit us. The money could have been used for better stuff, like for our kids,” Vickers mused in a recent interview, adding that his addiction is what led to his criminal past. "If I wasn't high, I would have never burglarized or have done any of that stuff."

Members of the law and justice community say drug addiction is the driver behind most local crime, whether its because users are too impaired to use good judgment or need to steal to get their next fix. As such, drug abuse is the main reason why the cost of justice is so high. For Cowlitz County government, for example, law and justice costs totaled $29.4 million last year, about 74 percent of the county's operating budget. By far the biggest expense was operating the county jail, which cost $7.5 million. And the vast majority of inmates are there for drug offenses or crimes related to drug addiction, officials say.

“A huge percentage of the cases we deal with are drug types of charges or a charge that stems drug abuse. I would venture to guess that even a vast majority of burglary cases tend to be stealing things for drugs or to support a drug habit,” said Cowlitz Superior Court Judge Gary Bashor, who also runs the county's Drug Court.

He said the cost to society of dealing with individuals like Vickers is staggering.

“Each time there’s a court case, there’s police involved and they are typically in jail before. If they are in jail they are not working and not supporting their family or contributing back to the community. The court system is expensive, too. It’s the most expensive solution we have,” Bashor said.

The system is filled with people like Vickers, who simply can't stay clean once they get out of prison. Drug addiction isn't just a scourge to the victim and his family; each new one opens a new hemorrhage of public money. And it's hard to stanch the flow.

In February, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse released its second report on substance abuse among the nation’s prison population, concluding that no progress has been made in the 12 years since the first report.

Of 2.3 million U.S. inmates, 1.5 million suffer from substance abuse addiction and another 458,000 either had histories of substance abuse, were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of committing their crimes; committed their offenses to get money to buy drugs; or were incarcerated for an alcohol or drug violation. Combined, the two groups make up 85 percent of the U.S. prison population, according to the report, “Behind Bars II, Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population."

The report also found that alcohol and other drugs are significant factors in all crimes, including 78 percent of violent crimes, 83 percent of property crimes and 77 percent of public order, immigration or weapons offenses as well as probation and parole violations.

According to the report, federal, state and local governments in 2005 spent $74 billion on incarceration, court proceedings, probation and parole for adults with substance abuse problems and juvenile offenders. That's enough to operate Washington state government nearly four years. Conversely, all these governments combined spent less than 1 percent of that amount, or $632 million, on prevention and treatment.

A rocky past

Vickers says he started using marijuana when he was 15 because all his friends did. He didn't get to graduate with the rest of his Mark Morris class because he spent his senior year locked up for second-degree burglary. Vickers and his friend robbed seven stores on Commerce Avenue in Longview.

In prison, he managed to get his GED and stop using marijuana. When he got out, though, he started smoking the drug again. Drugs weren't new to him; he was one of seven siblings from a middle class family. Two of his brothers were heavy drug users and his father drank heavily, he said.

By the time Vickers was 25, he was addicted to marijuana and alcohol and had spent about 20 months in prison for burglary and robbery. He said he got accustomed to drinking as a construction laborer because his coworkers did, too.

“Everybody did it. They told me I needed to stop but they all did it,” he said.

When he was 25, his brother committed suicide on New Year's Eve. The next day Vickers tried cocaine for his first time.

“I went to my friend's house and they were snorting lines, and I said I wanted to try one. I knew it would numb me. I heard what it did to you. I tried it, and I got hooked,” he said.

He hid his addiction from his wife and coworkers for several months. He snorted lines in the bathroom at work until one day he got caught by a coworker. When she learned, Vickers' wife left him and took their two children, ages 2 years and 8 months. Vickers missed both births of his sons. He was incarcerated during the birth of his first son and out using drugs during the birth of his second son.

"I regret it all so much now," he said, shedding tears at the memory.

After his wife left him, in 1994 Vickers spent another four years in prison for more offenses.

After he was released in January of 1999 and was making decent money in construction, he continued to commit crimes.

“This time I went to Tim’s Timber Tavern in Kelso and took the tip jar. I wasn’t broke. I had a job. But I grabbed the jar and I ran out the door with it,” he said, adding that he was high and wanted more money. He spent three years in prison for the offense, partly because he had already racked up a high number of points within the justice system.

He said he smoked marijuana and drank alcohol during his incarceration.

"People brought in marijuana though visitations and sometimes it would just be dropped off on site," Vickers said, adding that he didn't use much hard core narcotics in prison. He made the alcohol himself out of water, jelly, yeast, sugar and a bucket.

The same cycle repeated itself during all seven of Vickers’ incarcerations in Washington, he said: He'd get off hard drugs while in prison, but then start up again after his release.

He said he had drug rehab offered to him multiple times while in prison.

“I didn't want it. They offered it but I didn't want at the time,” he said, saying he wasn't ready for treatment yet.

He was released for the tavern offense in April of 2002. Only eight months afterwards, he was incarcerated again for two-and-a-half years for possession of cocaine.

When Vickers was released in 2005, things worked better for a while. Through his work release program he found a job at a local restaurant as a dishwasher and was planning on moving his way up to a server. But the day he was released from work release he found out his father was sick with cancer and used meth. His father died two weeks later.

“That’s when I tried meth for the first time. It rocked my world,” he said. He spent another year and seven months in prison in 2006 to 2008. By that time he was fully addicted to meth, he said, adding that the idea of getting clean was almost too much to handle.

“I get overwhelmed by all the good that happens to me when I am sober and clean,” he said.

Drugs, for Vickers, were a way of coping of with family deaths, divorces and other traumatic experiences.

Once usually is not enough

Judge Bashor said that unless an addict goes through treatment, the chances of them staying sober are slim. “Any time an addict doesn’t go into treatment to control their addiction, it’s just a matter of time before they are going to use again,” Bashor said.

It typically takes addicts several trips through rehab to finally clean up, he said.

"The average number of times for people to get successful treatment is seven times. Most people don’t just go in and get clean. It does happen, but it’s not the norm,” Bashor said.

Cases like Vickers — in which a troubling or tragic event causes a relapse — are typical, Bashor said.

“People will go relapse back into active use triggered by an event .… The problem with addiction is that if you’re clean, if you use again, you have to go back where you were and start over,” he said.

Vickers spent one last time in prison from 2011 to 2012 for taking a motor vehicle without permission.

“I took the car out of the garage, changed my mind when I realized what I was doing and parked it right back. I got in trouble for changing my mind,” he said, adding that he used meth again before entering prison.

When he got out, he was determined to stop stealing and using drugs. He said he began to realize the impact his choices were having on other people.

“I realized I was stealing money from a kid’s piggy bank or a kid’s new Christmas present,” he said.

Longview Salvation Army Lieutenants Niki and Jonathan Woollin believe in giving Vickers, and others like him, a second chance.

They allow Vickers to live at the church’s free housing program, “4 the Long View” that requires him to stay clean and sober and actively looking for work.

“We try to see the best in people and try to give them a chance to succeed. Tommy is a good example of that because he was formerly terminated from the “4 the Long View program,” and we really had to talk about taking him in again,” Niki Woollin said. “He was already living sober and taking those steps to succeed and we want to help him succeed,” she said.

Now, he says he still battles with staying clean and having a few beers every now and then, but that he’s trying to stay sober for six months so he can see his daughter. He volunteers at the Salvation Army every day to keep himself busy and clean, he said.

He attends AA meetings at the local 1414 and said he attended 15 meetings in 15 days. He said he was going to try to do 90 meetings in 90 days and that he volunteers at the Salvation Army every day.

He works side jobs and said he refuses to go back into construction to avoid being around a triggering environment. He said he still struggles with meth addiction and does the best he can to stay away from it.

“The minute that little bit of meth goes into my arm, I can be locked up for two years. … I can tell you a lot easier how to stop than I can tell you how to not get triggered,” he said.

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Contact Daily News reporter Shira Moskowitz at 360-577-2542 or smoskowitz@tdn.com.

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