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Opioid court judge confesses: 'My mom called me a functional addict'

Craig D. Hannah presides over Buffalo's opioid  court, which has gained national attention for helping people arrested on opioid drug charges go straight.

He knows what's going on inside the people who appear before him.

Judge Hannah is a recovering drug addict himself.

He says his life is living proof they, too, can live drug-free.

"The only difference between me and the participants in my court is time," said Hannah, 47, who has been clean nearly two decades.

When he became addicted to cocaine and marijuana as a young man, he never dreamed he would be able to give up drugs and one day serve as a judge.

He oversees about 75 people in the city's opiate court, which last May became the country's first to work exclusively with people addicted to opioid painkillers, heroin and other opiates.

The court started in response to the deadly opioid epidemic. So far none of the addicts working with Hannah have died. Not a bad statistic, considering there have been 233 confirmed and suspected deadly opiate overdoses this year, according to the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office.

Last year, there were 301 fatal overdoses in the county.

With thousands more dying across the country, Hannah's court, funded in part by a $300,000  Department of Justice grant, has attracted widespread attention. There have been stories on NBC Nightly News and HBO's Vice News .

Hannah hopes the publicity will help inspire the start of opiate courts in other parts of the country.

But the soft-spoken judge says he remains focused on the people who enter his courtroom and are willing to work at rebuilding their lives. The help his court offers comes in the 30-day delay in criminal proceedings for inpatient or outpatient treatment, depending on the severity of their addiction.

If the person charged completes the treatment, judges grant him or her possible a break on the charges.

The defendants must follow curfews, attend 12-step programs, counseling sessions, and submit to random drug testing.

But most of all, Hannah seeks honesty. He knows the road to recovery is not always smooth.

And so Hannah openly shares that he was once addicted and how, by embracing help, his life changed.

The judge's story

Buffalo City Court Judge Craig D. Hannah makes no effort to hide his history as an addict. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Hannah was the youngest of six children, and grew up on Winslow Avenue in the Cold Springs neighborhood.

His father died young of heart disease and that left his mother to raise the family and work two jobs. The consequences of addiction hit him when an older brother died of alcoholism. Yet it was not enough to scare him away from drugs.

Hannah said in his world, drugs were a way of life.

"Drugs are what I saw every day. It was my norm, even though it wasn't the norm for society," he said. "But I was lucky. The Lord and people looked out for me before I was smart enough to look out for myself."

While his friends were getting arrested and going to jail, Hannah managed to succeed academically, graduating from City Honors in 1988 and then Canisius College. His luck ran out during his first year at the University at Buffalo's Law School.

"I was studying abroad in Kenya and got sent home," he said.

Drugs were plentiful and inexpensive in Kenya.

"When I returned home, my mom called me a functional addict," he said. "She had lost faith in me, and that was the hardest thing. She had been pulling for me."

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Hitting bottom, he acknowledged he had an addiction and sought help at Faith Missionary Baptist Church on Humboldt Parkway, where he attended a men's group in the basement.

"You don't wait until you stop sinning to come to church. You come to church to learn how to stop sinning," the Rev. James R. Banks II told him.

That message resonated with Hannah.

He faced obstacles. The shame of doing wrong. The embarrassing stigma attached to drug addiction. His path to recovery arrived in the form of spiritual healing. His ongoing recovery, Hannah said, he considers a gift from God.

But he is quick to add that his faith-based drug-free life may not be everyone's choice and there are different approaches, which are offered in his court.

Rewards of recovery

Clean living can be a big incentive, he said.

When he visits his mother, Maggie Hannah, he says he can see the joy in her eyes.

"It's like my first name disappeared. All she does is call me 'judge' now. It's her pride in me," he said.

Another blessing his new life has brought, he said, is "the angel God sent me."  He first met the former Angela Reynolds on the first day of classes in their freshman year at Canisius College.

"We were in Psy 101 together and became friends. She knew me through all of the years I continued to use but refused to be around me when I was using. She never wanted to be more than friends," he said.

The unexpected happened during his recovery. They started dating and married in 2004. Their 11-year-old daughter, Taylor, and Angela's career as an assistant principal at City Honors School are blessings as well, he says.

On the bench

Hannah's City Court transitions from criminal matters to opiate intervention cases at 11 a.m. each day.

When that happens, rather than call the individuals who appear defendants, he calls them "participants." They are participating in their recovery.

He openly shares his own story and asks them how they are progressing in treatment. If they have slipped, he encourages them to confess rather than be discovered through a random drug screening test.

"If you tell me before we test you, I'm going to try and get you into another level of care," Hannah said.

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His court staff includes treatment providers who, if not immediately, within a matter of hours can secure the necessary services.

"If you lie and we find out, you're going to be sanctioned and that could include community service, attendance at more 12-step group meetings. I rarely put someone back in jail. I want them to tell me they need more help. We are about second chances," said Hannah, now serving his second 10-year year term as a City Court judge.

And the opportunity for him to share his own story of addiction assures him of continued freedom from drugs, he said.

The participants say the judge's honesty makes an impression.

What they think

Nick Cefaly of Depew was hooked on marijuana and later prescription opioid painkillers for injuries suffered as a landscaper and later a roofer. The addiction grew worse, and Buffalo police arrested the 29-year-old last April after he purchased heroin at a Broadway-Fillmore drug house.

Cefaly's home life also was a mess. He and his girlfriend were expecting their first child in June, and his addiction devoured his paychecks.

"There was never any money," he said, while sitting in the front row of opiate intervention court on a recent morning.

When he was offered the chance to participate in the special court, he said he was more than ready.

"The judge told me he was an addict, and I was surprised. He's awesome, and this court definitely turned me around. I was not headed in the right direction," Cefaly said. "Getting arrested has turned out to be a blessing."

Cefaly continues to attend counseling sessions, is prescribed buprenorphine to relieve opiate cravings and intends to follow the judge's advice and continue seeking treatment for his addiction after his criminal case is resolved. He's hoping his drug possession charges will be reduced or dismissed.

David Scott, a 29-year-old Lancaster resident, puts it more bluntly on what the judge and court have done for him.

"When I learned the judge was an addict, I thought, 'Anybody can make it,' " Scott said. "I feel blessed every day. I love my life. I've never felt better and that's the truth."

Scott says he is in the process of doing "90 in 90," a parlance of recovery that translates to 90 12-step meetings in 90 days.

"I go to the meetings at night and to my counseling group in the morning," he said, after spending a few minutes in front of the judge who encouraged him to keep up the good work.

But not every participant is sold on what some have derisively called the court: a "hug-a-thon."

To them,  Hannah offers an observation:

"Sometimes they say they don't get anything out of treatment and I say, 'That's because you're not listening. If you hear other people's stories, you can relate it to yourself and glean information out of it. Sometimes you can learn what not to do by listening.' "

And while the judge believes that there is a spiritual element to recovery, he says his court offers secular and nonsecular approaches to treatment through a variety of services.

Hannah's fairness known

City Court Judge Craig D. Hannah congratulates David Scott, 29, of Lancaster on how well he’s progressing on Aug. 8. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Chief City Court Judge Thomas P. Amodeo and Jeff Smith, who administers special court programs, offered Hannah the job of running the intervention court.

"I don't think that they knew I was an addict. I was told they picked me because I always am fair and understanding with my cases," Hannah said.

Buffalo Deputy Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood, who has been friends with Hannah for years, says he was not surprised when the judge was appointed head of the opiate court.

"He hung in the projects and I grew up in the projects, and in those years, there was always substance abuse. So he understands it; he's seen it firsthand. He can relate to it and deal with it," Lockwood said.

Lockwood says he has heard from people who have gone before him in court "that he is always fair, a good guy."

Just as important, Lockwood added, officers who make the arrests that end up adjudicated by Hannah "never complain about how he handled a case and his decision," he said.

Hannah, whose court works in conjunction with City Court Judge Robert T. Russell's Drug Court, says it is his hope that other legal jurisdictions throughout the country will learn from what is happening in Buffalo and start similar courts of their own to help in solving the opiate epidemic.

"The best part about this is that we want people to see what we are doing here and find ways to make improvements," he said, aware that he does not hold all the answers to the baffling disease of addiction.

But he firmly believes his path in life is meant to inspire others.

Hannah recalled a collect phone call he received from a state prison shortly after he was first elected.

"It was from a friend I had grown up with. He's still in prison for conspiracy to sell drugs. He wanted me to verify to the people on his unit that I was his man back in the day and that I had become a judge. They thought he was full of it.

"Of course I said, 'That's my man, my brother.' I could hear the guys around the phone saying  'Oh, yeah.' I did it because I wanted them to see that a guy from the same neighborhood who grew up poor and from a single-parent household could succeed. It can be beyond your wildest dreams."

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