Hope on the Horizon

Navigating Co-occurring Disorders and Arizona Drug Laws

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Depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia—mental health disorders are often thought of as single, separate entities with unique symptoms and treatment recommendations. But lines between mental health challenges often blur and blend, as many Americans struggle with symptoms from multiple disorders, including those related to substance use. A co-occurring disorder is defined as the coexistence of at least one mental health disorder with at least one substance use disorder. Those diagnosed with a mental disorder like depression are more likely to abuse substances than those without such a diagnosis. 

According to a 2022 SAMHSA survey, approximately 21.5 million U.S. adults are managing co-occurring disorders. Due to the illicit nature of substance abuse, adults and teens struggling with it are more likely to have contact with their local legal system. In Arizona, such individuals must contend with possession, use, and driving laws that can lead to costly fines and jail time. Policymakers in Arizona have been working on bridging the gap between court involvement and mental health recovery. Rather than enacting purely punitive consequences upon offenders, Arizona’s court systems are providing options for mental health and substance use treatment as part of the path to justice. For those struggling with substance abuse and their concerned loved ones navigating the legal system for the first time, learning about these options for restorative justice can instill hope and reduce overwhelm.

What are Arizona’s drug and alcohol laws?

Arizona is generally recognized as a state of transplants. Tens of thousands of new residents flood into Phoenix and its surrounding cities each year, typically with little knowledge about these cities’ unique drug and alcohol laws.

What are Arizona’s drug and alcohol laws?

Zero tolerance

One key law is Arizona’s zero tolerance policy for driving under the influence (DUI). Though the national legal blood alcohol limit is .08, Arizona law allows for DUI charges against those who test below this level if they are deemed “impaired to the slightest degree.” This wording permits arrest at the subjective discretion of the police officer conducting the traffic stop and applies to impairment not only by alcohol but also by vaporized substances and any drug, including marijuana, that has not been prescribed to the user. Potential penalties for a first DUI offense include 10 days in jail, a $250 fine, and in the case of alcohol intoxication, the installation of an ignition interlock device on any vehicle the individual uses.

Drug offense penalties

Other local laws cover the possession and use of illegal drugs. For first-time drug offenders in Arizona, penalties include up to a year in jail and fines of $2,000 or three times the value of the drug in possession, whichever is higher. However, for nonviolent offenders, the sentence may be reduced to probation and mandatory substance abuse treatment.

Is weed legal in Arizona?

Since 2020, the recreational use of marijuana has been legal in Arizona for any resident 21 or over. Retailers of weed-based products have cropped up all over the valley, their advertising on the billboards that line city streets. But possession laws remain that can land a user in legal trouble. Individuals can purchase or possess no more than one ounce of marijuana at a time, with no more than five grams in concentrate form. Those who grow marijuana plants in their home can have no more than six ounces for personal use, and the plants cannot be kept where visible to the public or accessible to minors. 

The intersection of mental health and the legal system in Arizona

Fortunately for Arizona residents, the state recognizes the impact of mental health, including co-occurring disorders, on its citizens. In 2021, Arizona’s Supreme Court released a report documenting the implementation of new mental and behavioral health initiatives in courts across the state. These initiatives include mental health screenings in jails, diversion and court treatment programs, and co-located court and treatment services. In Maricopa County, three courtrooms have been built inside mental health facilities, and at the time of the report, a fourth was planned. State officials hope to improve access to treatment services and reduce the rate of repeat offenders. 

In addition, many city-level courts have developed programs to assist those with co-occurring disorders. The Phoenix Municipal Court, for example, has the Behavioral Health Court, which is designed to provide deferred prosecution and an alternative court setting for those receiving mental health treatment. Deferred prosecution and diversion programs redirect cases from punitive sentencing (e.g., jail time) toward rehabilitative efforts. Courts in Tempe and Chandler provide diversion programs for those with mental health and substance use disorders, ensuring those who need it most are funneled toward treatment rather than incarceration. The state’s juvenile courts also provide diversion for minors with first-time drug offenses, requiring the youth to complete a consequence under the supervision of their juvenile probation officer.

Concerned loved ones might wonder if they can intervene before an individual is charged with drug or alcohol offenses. Is it possible to have someone evaluated or treated for substance use without their permission? In Arizona, individuals can complete a petition for a court-ordered evaluation if they believe a loved one is a current danger to themselves or others due to a possible untreated mental disorder. However, substance use disorders alone do not meet the requirement for evaluation, so any post-evaluation court-ordered treatment would not be designed to treat substance use. Bills have been introduced in the state senate that would permit family members to initiate involuntary substance use treatment, but the effectiveness of this approach and its likelihood to fracture family relationships remain under debate.

Resources for support and recovery in Arizona

Co-occurring disorders are challenging to treat and require compassionate support from multiple avenues. For those wanting to help a loved one who is battling both mental health challenges and addiction, there are a few pathways to consider.

Foster a sense of loving community

The greatest gift a concerned loved one can offer is their presence. Individuals managing substance use disorders are frequently overcome with guilt and shame, which can lead to patterns of self-isolation and further destructive behaviors. Support that doesn’t enable addiction often includes frequent check-ins, invitations to engage in healthy activities or events, and attendance at support groups such as Al-Anon or Alcoholics Anonymous. Some support groups are designed specifically for friends and family members of those struggling with addiction, while others are intended for both those struggling and their loved ones.

Seek legal aid

The longer someone struggles with substance use, the greater likelihood they will eventually face legal ramifications. Navigating the legal system can be challenging and expensive, but several organizations offer assistance based on need. AZCourtHelp provides a directory of free and low cost legal aid services, including advice, advocacy, and representation.

Consider treatment options

For those struggling to manage daily responsibilities and relationships due to co-occurring disorders, targeted therapy may be the best option to facilitate rehabilitation. Integrative behavioral health treatment provides comprehensive support to individuals and their families. Modern Recovery utilizes evidence-based therapies that address a variety of mental health challenges, including substance use disorders, as well as other targeted interventions that combine to form a holistic healing environment. 

Additional services at Modern Recovery include medication management for those prescribed psychiatric medications as part of their treatment plan as well as access to recovery coaches—compassionate case managers who have navigated and recovered from similar challenges themselves. Small group counseling and family therapy sessions round out the extensive offerings to optimize treatment outcomes. Whether leading programs for adults or teens, the experienced mental health professionals at Modern Recovery support individuals and their loved ones to aid successful recovery.

While co-occurring disorders come with unique challenges, it is important for those managing both mental health and substance use disorders to know they are not alone. Involvement with the justice system for drug offenses may feel like hitting rock bottom, but the increasing focus on restorative justice practices in Arizona can instead provide a pathway to hope and healing.