The first thought that came to Louisiana attorney James Mecca's mind when he landed in jail after being arrested for accepting marijuana in exchange for legal services was, “Thank God! Now maybe somebody can help me.”
Mecca was arrested on Dec. 20, 2013, in Tammany Parish when an officer posed as a potential client seeking criminal representation for his son. The sting operation was set up when an informant told the sheriff’s office that he had used marijuana to pay Mecca for legal services in the past.
Looking back over the events of the past 24 months, Mecca said that he now realizes that he struggled with alcohol for 40 years and failed to realize it.
“I had people tell me over the years that I had a drinking problem and that I was an alcoholic," Mecca told the Louisiana Record recently. "But the alcoholic mindset is, ‘No, everybody else’s got it wrong. I’m doing what I enjoy doing and it’s not a problem.’”
Then, when his father, whom he was close to, passed away in 2011, Mecca’s drinking intensified as he tried to fill the void.
“I had a drinking problem prior to that, but this just expanded it tenfold, really," he said.
Mecca went through college and law school without drinking a drop. When he was focused on a goal, he didn’t focus on alcohol at all. But when he became settled in his profession, he began to have a few drinks a week, which didn’t lead to any major problems. But when his father died, within a matter of one-and-a-half to two years, his life went from a normal life to “a very alcoholic existence,” he said.
He isolated himself and drank more than he had ever drunk in his life, opting to drink in the confines of his home rather than in bars or around people.
“I was drinking on a daily basis,” Mecca said.
The amount of alcohol he was consuming began to cause Mecca to worry about his liver, but the thought of giving up alcohol was too much for him. So instead of seeking treatment, he chose to substitute his drinking with another substance.
“Then my mind reckoned with the idea of, ‘Well, what about marijuana? You won’t have to worry about your liver,’" he said. "I didn’t even think about my lungs or my brain, so I justified it because it was legal in several states.”
Mecca said that he personally didn’t like marijuana, but he needed something to give him the “high” so he could continue to deal with his grief and the various stressors he had used alcohol to mask.
About three months before his arrest, Mecca began to accept that he had a drinking problem and was spending an extraordinary amount on alcohol. He refused, however, to acknowledge that he was an alcoholic because he saw it as “a weakness." Instead, he began to make plans to quit.
“I thought each first of the month I would quit," he said. "And the first of the month came, and I would look at my calendar and say, ‘Oh, it’s a very stressful, busy month. It’s not a good month to quit.’ So I would adjust it to the next month. Three months in a row this came up and the same excuse was made.”
It was at this low point when he got a call from a former client whom he had previously purchased marijuana from that set off warning flags.
“I’m a criminal defense lawyer so I see these cases all the time," he said. "I know the routine of most of these narcotics agents. So when this unfolded in my lap, it had a number of warning signs that my alcoholic mind was saying, ‘Maybe it’s a bust in the making, but nah, it’s OK.’”
The client offered to sell Mecca a pound of high-grade marijuana, which was more than he had bought from him in the past.
“I had taken a quarter pound before, and that would last me," Mecca said. "As an attorney, I could afford it; and as an attorney, I didn’t want to be out on the streets buying this stuff for security reasons, I guess you could say.”
When he was eventually busted, Mecca was overwhelmed with gratitude because now he had the opportunity to get help.
“I was so relieved when this happened," he said. "I can’t explain to you enough just how relieved I was that finally, maybe, somebody could help me with this problem I’ve got. I couldn’t do it myself and I couldn’t reach out because I was professional. There was an embarrassment with reaching out."
Looking back with a sober mind, Mecca cannot believe he once embraced the idea that his illness was something to be ashamed of.
On Jan. 6, 2014, Mecca was charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana, which violated “Rule 8.4(b) or the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibiting the commission of a criminal act, especially one that reflects adversely on a lawyer’s fitness.” The charge was eventually reduced to simple possession of marijuana – a misdemeanor.
The Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board's Office of Disciplinary Council concluded on Oct. 19 that Mecca expressed genuine remorse for the arrest and was forthright in owning up to his actions. In light of this, the committee recommended that a deferred one-year suspension was the appropriate punishment for Mecca, as long as he continued to comply with a Lawyer's Assistance Program-sponsored addiction treatment plan.
“If you ask me how I’m doing today, I’ll say that I’m living," he said. "I’m alive, and I would not give up that experience. I would not give up that embarrassment. I would not give up anything I have been through and earned in the last 24 months because this is a wonderful life. And as baffling as it was to me to think that I couldn’t get through life without alcohol, I can see now that there is a great life without alcohol. Life’s great! I love my sobriety. I love my AA fellowship. I have a good strong spiritual existence now because of all this."
People might assume that Mecca would have some resentment toward the police officers who arrested him, but Mecca said he has no ill-feelings.
“I’m so happy that they did their job and helped me get out of the life I was in," he said. "I couldn’t hold them in resentment. I just couldn’t. I don’t today. I’m so glad God put these people in my life to get me where I needed to be.”
Mecca added that he could not be more pleased with his career now, and he is able to help his clients a lot more now.
“Now I can at least reach out and give them some direction to help them out with their drug or alcohol problem," he said. "I don’t have any embarrassment. Initially, I thought I would. And when it happened, I wanted to curl up and die, and never be seen again. But the process has allowed me to understand that it all happened for a reason, and it couldn’t have been more of a blessing.”
He attends AA meetings more than three times a week and said he doesn’t find it burdensome.
“I definitely have to stay in touch there, and keep up with my daily prayer and meditation; and it’s not a chore," he said. "It’s so pleasant to be here compared to where I was before I got here.”
Even though his past is marred by his arrest, Mecca has chosen to move forward and not dwell on the past.
“I’m so changed," he said. "Everything I had was exposed because of all this, but now I can move on without regret and without embarrassment. I’ve embraced it. Some people can’t understand how I can afford to be seen out in public, but I’ve gained so much from this that I could care less about what others think.”
When all is said a done, Mecca’s desire is to continue to help others suffering from addiction.
“As far as my future goes, I plan to practice law," he said. "I plan to try to help other alcoholics and addicts as best as I can because God has given me this opportunity and he works in mysterious ways. It took law enforcement to get me here. And now that I’m here, I can’t state enough how wonderful this normal life is without all those mind-altering substances polluting the brain.”
Now Mecca relies on his faith to get him through each day, and has replaced his drinking with being more active outdoors, fishing and nurturing relationships with family and friends.