Alby Zweig knows what it’s like to need a heroin fix so badly you’re willing to pawn your parents’ stereo to score it. He gets what it means to be so strung out on cocaine you’re convinced police are hiding under your house.
Zweig knows because he’s a recovered junkie.
He’s also Denver’s newest drug court magistrate.
“I have a suspicion that in the history of American jurisprudence, nobody else has ever gone from criminal defendant to judicial officer,” says Denver District Court Chief Judge Robert Hyatt, who appointed Zweig and swore him in earlier this month. “This story is emblematic of what drug court is all about. It’s a therapeutic court that gives people a second chance. I doubt that anybody has taken advantage of a second chance as much as Alby Zweig.”
Zweig, 44, started with the kind of occasional drug use common to members of his generation. He took mushrooms and LSD in high school and drank a lot in college. It was the late 1980s when, despite the “the whole Nancy Reagan don’t-do-drugs” messaging of the era, he says his recreational substance use didn’t affect his schoolwork or relationships like the public service announcements warned they would.
But then he tried heroin, and tried it again, until he went from smoking it to injecting it and would do almost anything for a fix. He likens heroin addiction to “having a chain around your neck that’s tied to a semi-truck pulling you forward while you’re trying to pull the other way.”
“It was super, super powerful. I really, really wanted to quit. I wanted to so bad but I could not. I just could not,” he says.
Zweig spent much of his 20s moving from city to city, time zone to time zone, convinced each time it would be tougher to find dealers in a new place.
“There was San Francisco, Denver, Portland, Chicago, New York, Boston… I’d score in one city just to make it to the next city. It became clear that regardless of where I went, the addiction would follow.”
Figuring he could get clean in a city where heroin was more difficult to find, he moved to Ottawa, the Canadian capital, to seek counseling from a Buddhist psychologist known for his success helping clients kick heroin habits. While in treatment, Zweig got hooked on cocaine, learning how to break down crack with vinegar so he could inject it. His coke addiction brought on paranoia that led him to see police everywhere – if only in his head.
“I remember digging down into the crawl space in my parents’ house because I was convinced there was a police-monitoring operation down there and I was trying to out them,” he says.
Zweig went from detox to rehab, then back again – in and out, unable to get clean. Nothing worked. His parents kicked him out of their house and Zweig learned to survive homeless. He lived for a spell in a closet for rollaway beds in a Super 8 motel in northwest Denver. When he was kicked out of the Super 8, he took up residence in a grove of trees alongside I-25.
In 1995, he was arrested for heroin possession and spent a night in jail going through withdrawal.
His mom, Marlene Zweig, remembers noticing her son teetering between two identities during the height of his addiction. Sometimes he was himself, Alby – “loving, tender and honest.” And sometimes he was “Albz” – someone who was angry, dying inside and unknowable.
Zweig became convinced he couldn’t quit or endure the probation program he was offered in Denver Drug Court. He figured it was a matter of time before he’d be hauled off to prison where, at 5’7” and 135 lbs, he was pretty sure he’d be “eaten alive.” At age 29, he set his mind on killing himself.
“I went to the library and got a book called ‘Final Exit’ for people who are terminally ill and want to commit suicide without screwing it up. I thought it was better not to live than to live an entire life in the heroin and coke scene. So I was going to try to overdose on opiates with a plastic bag over my head. It was all supposed to be kind of painless and foolproof,” he says.
Zweig being Zweig – pathologically honest and thoughtful, even while high – went to his parents to say that, should anything ever happen to him, his addiction wasn’t their fault.
“What kind of kid tells his parents he’s going to kill himself? That’s so Alby,” says his mom, half laughing, half crying as she remembers the conversation 18 years ago.
She also remembers what she told him: That he couldn’t die. No way. She couldn’t bear it.
“At that point, that moment, it was like there was a crack in the dam that had been keeping me from seeing how much I’d been hurting my family and friends,” Zweig recalls. “That dam broke and I decided I was going to give this probation a real shot.”
Mother and son went that day to put him on a waiting list for a methadone clinic at Denver Health. Over about four years, the methadone helped him stay off heroin. He got jobs as a tree trimmer and working the front desk of a Residence Inn whose manager let him use a hotel room before each shift to shower. Zweig worked at regaining the trust of his family and friends. And he learned to get comfortable accepting the support of the public defender, social worker, methadone clinic worker, probation officer and judge who – working together as part of the drug court’s program – were invested in his recovery.
“Once I stopped using, I felt carried along by people, by the system. It’s hard to explain, but the way I picture it is like a river. If you flow with the river, everything is easy, effortless. And if you go against it, everything seems impossibly difficult. I don’t really take credit for what happened to me. I just finally let myself be supported.”
With characteristic candor, Zweig disclosed his drug history when he decided to apply for law school. In hindsight, he thinks his drug past may have helped far more than his college grades or LSAT scores. His classmates at the University of Denver chose him in 2002 to give their commencement speech in which he reminded his classmates that every one of them had benefited from the help of others, and therefore were obligated to give back to the community.
Zweig at first decided not to practice, convinced that law “drains everything it touches of its magic.” About four years after law school, after stints in a graduate program in public policy and a job as a private investigator, he took the bar exam and passed. Then he had to convince the state bar to admit him despite his criminal record. Zweig snagged a job in the same public defenders office that had advocated for him. Soon after, he was sitting in his boss’s office when a call came that Denver was revamping its drug court and would need a public defender. Something clicked.
“I wanted to be that guy representing those clients. I pestered my boss, Charlie Garcia, for about a week to put me in drug court,” he says of an assignment that many of his more ambitious colleagues tried their hardest to avoid.
The work was close to home and the clients familiar. He says he rarely meets a client whose addiction doesn’t make sense. “There’s a certain type who becomes an addict. They’re really sweet, sensitive people who feel really deeply. It’s because of that that the drugs work with them. It’s rare that I meet an addict that I’m not empathetic with.”
Despite many of his similarities with his clients, though, he knows he has had many advantages that they don’t have – a college education, a supportive family, no mental health issues and the fact that he is white.
Defending addicts put Zweig in some tough spots. It was his job to get them help for their addictions if they wanted it. But for the many who didn’t, his role was to advocate his hardest to keep them out of jail and, in effect, leave them out on the streets, where he knew they’d just continue using.
“It was hard because part of my job was to enable them,” he says. “Now, as a magistrate, I can say ‘Try this even if you don’t want to try this.’ If they say no, I’m going to say, ‘I’m requiring you to try this, even if you don’t want to because we’re going to do it my way.”
Hyatt says he appointed Zweig not for his personal history — “as interesting and inspiring as it is” — but because he was the “most experienced, knowledgeable and outstanding candidate out of dozens upon dozens of applications.”
“It would have been very hard not to hire him,” he says.
Zweig has no intention of going easy on the addicts who appear in his courtroom, because he knows that going easy won’t help them. He’s convinced that the difference between success and failure kicking addiction “is really taking that step to surrender and really trying to allow the world to help you.
“It’s that river thing – letting yourself flow with the river,” he says. “If somebody told the Alby back then that some day I’d be a magistrate, I’d never had believed it. I would have said ‘No, no way. You don’t understand. You don’t know where I am.’”
Zweig doesn’t plan on sharing the details of his own biography each time an addict comes before him. But, in the likely event that one of them says that he, with his black robe and high bench, doesn’t know what it’s like, he’s not exactly sure how he’ll respond.
“I might say ‘I do know where you’ve been, because I’ve been there, and I know that, if you allow yourself to be helped, the potential for profound change in drug court is enormous.”