Justice

How One Drug Testing Company Turned Low-Level Pot Busts Into A Huge Moneymaker

CREDIT: AP Photo/Kevin W. Fowler

Drug treatment courtrooms look a lot like normal criminal courts -- and critics worry they don't function much better either.

A well-meaning policy to slow the flood of low-level marijuana offenders into Arizona prisons has instead been siphoning money away from people busted for pot possession to enrich a handful of private citizens, the Phoenix New Times recently reported.

Since 1990, Maricopa County has operated diversionary programs for people facing prison over minor possession offenses. The state’s most populous county contracts with a private outfit called the Treatment Assessment Screening Center (TASC), which ”won” a no-bid contract to be the exclusive drug testing vendor for the county’s diversionary programs back in 1989. When a low-level drug convict lands in the county’s drug court as part of her probation, Maricopa pays TASC to conduct her drug tests.

But thousands of others are arrested with drugs in their pockets and, before they are ever charged, offered a choice: Get prosecuted, or sign up for TASC’s independent treatment and testing system.

Unlike probationers in drug court, people who get diverted into TASC’s hands to avoid ever being prosecuted must pay out-of-pocket for the cost of their treatment and urine tests. The combined revenue TASC generates from Maricopa County’s probation budget for drug court testing and from individual clients who get steered toward them by law enforcement has padded TASC employees’ pockets for years.

TASC wouldn’t tell the New Times what a typical participant pays for her freedom, but a local defense attorney said the total bill often runs as high as $1,300. Arizona gives people an extra incentive to shell out that money, too: It is one of the few remaining states where a drug conviction means losing access to food stamps and welfare benefits for life.

The county refers thousands of marijuana offenders to TASC each year, generating millions of dollars in revenue for the non-profit organization. The system, which one former participant described as “government-run, taxpayer-funded legal extortion,” has been kind to those in charge of running it.

Former TASC CEO Barbara Zugor made more than $4.2 million in total compensation from 2000 through her retirement in 2014, tax documents for the non-profit show. Her total compensation – which includes rent payments from the company, as she co-owns the building where it has its headquarters – hovered between $400,000 and half a million dollars per year for the last six years she held the job.

Zugor’s husband works in a senior position at TASC as well, though his earnings never came close to matching hers. The couple’s combined haul from their monopoly over drug diversion treatment payments approaches the $5.5 million mark over the same period.

The vast majority of that money came out of the pockets of people whose only offense was having a small amount of marijuana. While other drug possession crimes also funnel paying customers into TASC’s doors, roughly 80 percent of people who participate in the system ended up there because of a pot bust according to the New Times’ review.

Douglas Kramer replaced Zugor as CEO a year before her retirement, and defended his predecessor’s compensation to the paper by saying she “dedicated her life to the TASC cause of bridging the gap between criminal justice and substance-abuse treatment systems.”

The idea to merge those two systems has been around for over a quarter-century and exploded in popularity in recent years. Drug courts for probationers like the one TASC services and pre-trial diversionary treatment programs like the one it charges $1,300 for now see about 120,000 defendants nationwide each year according to Pacific Standard. But many of the promises of the common idea behind those two systems have not come true, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, in large part because the compassionate alternative court systems that funnel clients to groups like TASC still exists alongside prohibition policies toward narcotics that place criminal concerns over health concerns.

TASC’s contract with Maricopa County is up in February. With a statewide ballot measure that would legalize recreational cannabis and destroy the firm’s primary revenue stream pending this November, the group has not yet put in a bid to renew the deal.

This piece has been updated to clarify the distinction between TASC’s pre-trial services in Maricopa County and the post-conviction drug court system.