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Mandated by the Legal System to Attend AA or NA? Here are 3 Things You Need to Know

Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family.

It is estimated that 20% of people who go into treatment and 12 step meetings are forced there by the legal system. If you find yourself in the legal system due a drug charge or DUI, or if you are in a fight for custody of your children and your ex has accused you of a substance use problem, it is likely that you will be mandated to attend support group meetings, specifically Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. When mandated to these meetings you are given a sheet that must be signed by someone at the meeting, such as the meeting chairperson or the group’s GSR (General Service Representative – this is the group’s leader or administrator). If this happens to you, it’s important to know your rights.

  1. 1. Court Mandating AA/NA Is Unconstitutional and has been ruled as such in many states. While it is true that there are states such as New York and Tennessee where the highest courts have ruled that mandating AA/NA meeting attendance by a legal authority is a violation of the Establishment Clause in the constitution (prohibits government mandated religion), nearly all states including New York still engage in this practice, albeit in an indirect manner. In these states people are typically mandated to a treatment program that employs 12-step facilitation and that treatment program then makes participation in AA/NA meetings a mandatory component in their treatment. Therefore if you are mandated to treatment, which then mandates you to meetings, you must prove to the treatment provider that you attended those meetings and they will, in turn, tell the legal entity that you are compliant with your treatment. Most people don’t have the time or resources to challenge this end-run-around constitutional violation, so they work to do what they feel they have to do to fulfill their legal obligations. BUT please know that in states where the precedent has been set, all people have the right to refuse to attend AA/NA meetings and by default treatment that is based on the 12 step program. They have the right to demand an alternative program, which can be difficult to find, but does exist.
  2. You Can Just “Play the Game”. Most people choose to simply play the game, do their time, and then move on with their lives. If you must go to meetings, you can choose to make the best of it. Perhaps you’ll meet a nice person, have a terrible cup of coffee, and share a smoke with someone whose life is a bigger train wreck than yours. You’ll likely find some good old fashioned gratitude for your own life while at a meeting. But I do advise caution; some of the rhetoric and storytelling can be quite compelling. You may go in with strong resolve and self-confidence, certain that you don’t have a disease called addiction, and that you are not powerless, but the book Alcoholics Anonymous and the meetings are specifically designed to break you down and make you feel like you need them. Your self-confidence may be thrown in your face as strong evidence that you are suffering from the disease. It is seen as a negative, and you may be told that you are in denial, because as they say “no one ends up here (in the rooms) by accident.” Stick to your resolve because taking on a belief that you are powerless is not at all helpful. It is far better for you to believe you can control your consumption of substances than to believe that you can’t.   
  3. Don’t Get Trapped in the System. If you have the means, make sure you hire an attorney that is not complicit in the drug and alcohol treatment mandating system. Far too many defense attorneys seem to be working for the system rather than representing their clients and protecting their clients’ rights. In these attorneys’ defense, I’m sure they feel as if keeping their clients out of jail is paramount, which it can be, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of their clients’ civil rights. In many cases a short stint in jail is far better than months in treatment followed by years in meetings. And just because you may be mandated to a 28-day treatment program, do not assume that you will get to do your 28-days and be done with it. If you have financial means and/or good health insurance a 28-day rehab stay may turn into several months or more costing you precious time and tens of thousands of dollars. Oftentimes when addiction treatment is offered in lieu of jail, you must agree to several years of probation during which time you’ll be trapped in the treatment system, regularly drug tested, and barred from using any substances at all. Even one seemingly innocent glass of wine, a legal substance, can turn into a probation violation, jail time, or another stint in a pricey rehab if the wrong person sees you. Then the probation clock starts all over again.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree there should be consequences for problems we cause others, but forced treatment through the courts is an abysmal failure, and forced attendance at 12-step support group meetings like AA and NA is a violation of your rights. And furthermore, it’s harmful. You have the right to refuse to participate in 12-step based treatment and meetings regardless of your legal situation.


Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use problem, there is an empowering solution that has proven to be three times more effective than addiction treatment and twelve times more effective than 12 step meetings. Go to for more information or call 888-424-2626.


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