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Monday, June 24, 2013

Abascal Fellow to Urge Appropriate Responses to Drug Addiction

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Monica Ault '13, Abascal Fellow with Drug Policy Alliance

There is the slightest accent in Monica Ault’s voice, one that initially is hard to place.

Her tone starts off matter of factly, patiently, and then escalates into an articulate passion for New Mexico, and for ensuring that it develops effective, community-based treatment services in response to the scourge of drug addiction that is sinking parts of her home state.

Known by outsiders for its Anasazi ruins, gorgeous big-sky high desert plains, and Georgia O’Keefe, New Mexico also has the highest drug-related death rate, per capita, in the nation. The drugs of choice: heroin, and any and all opioids.

Ault ’13 is a seventh-generation New Mexican, and grew up in Santa Fe. Her best friend died of a heroin overdose when Ault was 20. “We were in Girl Scouts together,” Ault said. “This is why I am so passionate about this issue, because my story is common. So many of us in New Mexico know someone who has overdosed and died, or someone who has been incarcerated for their drug use. Yet incarceration is not the answer,” Ault said.

Ault won the 2013 Ralph Abascal Fellowship to work with the Drug Policy Alliance on a pre-booking diversion program in the City of Santa Fe. The program will allow police officers to redirect individuals who would otherwise be convicted and incarcerated for nonviolent felony and misdemeanor drug possession offenses into community-based services and treatment. Ault will collaborate with local stakeholders, including the Santa Fe Mayor’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender, and local law enforcement and treatment providers, to develop, design and implement a culturally appropriate program and legal referral clinic.

“Heroin addiction has affected New Mexican communities for generations, but is driven by the loss of land, the lack of economic opportunity, and the reality of poverty,” Ault said. In addition to scant social services, there is a particular sadness and dislocation documented by Stanford anthropologist and northern New Mexican native Angela Garcia in “The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande,” which has led to entrenched, generational addiction.

“Garcia’s book is really important. She explains how centuries of material and cultural dispossession has affected northern New Mexican communities and driven many to addiction,” Ault said. “More than 100 years ago, New Mexicans lost their community Spanish land grants, she noted. “Today, that loss continues. There are generations of people being pushed from their ancestral lands,” Ault said.

“With the rise of tourism and increasing gentrification, our culture has become commodified. This loss has profoundly affected Northern New Mexicans. People have lost their sense of self, their sense of identity. It makes people angry, and leads many to addiction.”

Raised by a single mother and her grandparents, Ault, came from a strong extended family that offered her both support and freedom. Her grandfather drove her to school until the day she graduated high school. She grew up wanting to be an activist, and a law class in undergrad, taught from a casebook, ignited her thirst for the law.

“I realized that I didn’t want to be an academic, intellectual activist. I wanted to be a community lawyer and do social justice work,” she said.

At UC Hastings, Ault did the Individual Representation Clinic and the Group Advocacy Clinic, both part of the college’s Civil Justice Clinic. “It was great to both represent individual clients in ‘IR’ and work on a more systemic, restorative justice project, in ‘Group Ad’.”

Ault worked for Drug Policy Alliance in her 2L summer, and collaborated with Emily Kaltenbach, the New Mexico state director, and Dan Abrahamson, Director of Legal Affairs, on her proposal for the Abascal Fellowship.

“Addiction is a health issue, not a criminal issue,” she said. “Opioids and alcohol change one’s brain chemistry. Incarceration doesn’t help, it makes things worse.”

Ault’s program focuses on harm reduction and seeks to give support--social, economic and otherwise--as a way to decrease recidivism. “The main goals of the project are to create new pathways to treatment not available behind jail cell walls and to reduce incarceration rates of chronic drug users.” Funding, however, is a constant battle, even though treatment and social benefits cost far less than incarceration, Ault notes.

Ault said that addiction is perhaps due more to luck and chemistry than personal fortitude. “This could happen to any one of us. We need to harness our empathy and compassion. Once you increase access to services, you give people the tools for a better life, which will in turn strengthen the overall community.”

Ault credits her mentors at UC Hastings for helping her develop her project, including Jan Jemison, director of the Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP), Professor Ascanio Piomelli, and Academic Dean Shauna Marshall, who was her professor for the Social Justice Concentration Ault completed.

“Jan, Ascanio, and Shauna have contributed tremendously to the lawyer I have become. They’ve nurtured my rebellious spirit and helped me to cultivate my own professional flair. And now I’m off to New Mexico.”

About the Abascal Fellowship:

The Abascal Fellowship funds projects that will include legal advocacy, community education, and policy change in areas affecting people who are denied access to the legal system. It is given annually through UC Hastings College of the Law to a deserving alumni who wishes to work in public service. The $47,000 funds a year of employment in the public interest sector, with the hope the Fellow will become self-supporting.

Ralph Abascal (1934-1997) was a fierce advocate for immigrants, farm workers, and welfare recipients and changed the face of public interest lawyering as the long-time general counsel of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). He challenged the powerful, changed laws and improved the lives of the poor, the undocumented, and anyone who worked in California’s agricultural fields or ate its food.

Abascal served as founding director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, and had been the director of litigation at the San Francisco Legal Assistance Foundation. He worked for three decades on more than 200 major cases, many of them class actions on behalf of welfare recipients, farm workers, and undocumented immigrants.

Professor Mark Aaronson recently completed a history of Abascal's anti-poverty work in California, including his work as director of litigation for San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation (now part of Bay Area Legal Aid), from 1971-1976.  You can read more about it here.

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