Facing three to five years in prison helped Michelle Woodside to establish a successful drug rehabilitation program.

The path that led her from the prospect of jail time to becoming the founder and executive director of the Wellington Way Recovery Center included the completion of the Palm Beach county drug court, a ten-year old program under the supervision of Circuit Court Judge Krista Marx.

The diversionary program is voluntary for drug offenders with pending felony or misdemeanor charges that do not include trafficking or sales. Participants with violent crimes on their records, including misdemeanor domestic battery, are not eligible.

Operating from the premise that drug addicts need treatment, not jail, the program aims to stem the violent crime often associated with drugs; turning lives around in the process.

“By the time they graduate, they will have been sober for at least 90 days with no mess-ups whatsoever,” Marx said. “At the end of the program, participants get their charges dropped and no felony is listed on their record, which is great.”

The judge said it’s a rigorous program with random drug testing, which is difficult for some.

“We assess you immediately and make a determination about how severe your drug issue is,” she said.

A cocaine addict for nearly two decades, Woodside, 43, said the program saved her life after being charged with a felony.

“I slipped through [the system] for 19 years.  I was arrested 55 times as a direct result of substance abuse, but always had my charges dropped to a misdemeanor,” Woodside said.

“Drugs hid all my pain. Then I was charged with a felony for drug related crimes. I could do six months in jail but, I wasn’t prepared to do three to five years.”

Individual treatment, random testing and reporting to appropriate authorities are all a part of the program, which costs defendants a scant $20 per week to help offset some of the program’s expenses.

“They gave me no excuse to fail.  Therapy, counseling, if I needed someone to talk to, they were always there,” Woodside explained. “Drug court held me accountable, supported me through the whole process [and] inspired me.  I’m a miracle.”

Woodside said she became addicted almost immediately, with her habit becoming progressively worse over the years.

“I was homeless. I had a violent past. I was angry with my mother. The first time I smoked [crack] cocaine, I was hooked,” said the certified addictions specialist who, in addition to serving as a substance abuse coalition liaison for the drug court program, is pursuing an advanced degree in psychology.

Woodside took what she learned from the program, and coupled with the bachelor’s degree in psychology that she earned from Barry University, opened the Wellington Way Treatment Center.  The holistic program offers a 12-step treatment process, in addition to a host of services like acupuncture, massage, yoga and life coaching. Images from the program’s website look more like model homes than a drug treatment facility.

The 2006 recipient of the Governor's Award for fighting substance abuse in the community, Woodside said giving back by helping others deal with substance abuse is healing.

Boynton Beach criminal defense attorney Craig Lawson said drug court has helped several of his clients, but much more is needed.

“Drug court is a drop in the bucket, but I’d like to believe it’s helping [by] giving people who are serious [about recovery] the opportunity to try to straighten their lives out.”

Lawson said helping people early in their addiction can help to curb serious criminal activity.

“If you don’t get help for these addicts, their behavior will escalate to breaking into people’s homes, burglary, robbery,” Marx said. “They’ll be in the Publix parking lot looking for someone’s purse to snatch to get their next fix.”