Federal Court Orders Jail to Provide Methadone

On November 28, 2018, a federal court in Massachusetts granted a preliminary injunction this week, requiring that the Plaintiff in the case be provided continued access to methadone treatment for his opioid use disorder while incarcerated.

The Legal Action Center applauds this important decision, and commends the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts on their ruling, which requires a jail in Essex County, MA to provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to a man who is about to be sentenced for conduct that occurred two years ago, before he first started his recovery. The Court asserted that the Plaintiff is likely to succeed on his claim that the jail’s refusal to provide methadone treatment violates both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Sally Friedman, Vice President of Legal Advocacy at the Legal Action Center says, “The overwhelming majority of jails and prisons in this country fail to provide any of the three life-saving medications to treat opioid use disorder. This decision makes it clear that these practices are not only harmful, but illegal. Jails and prisons need to offer all three FDA-approved medications to treat opioid use disorder.”

This case in Massachusetts sets an important legal precedent, as it is the first in the country to find that denying incarcerated individuals with opioid use disorders access to ongoing medication can violate the law under both the ADA and the U.S. Constitution.

The Legal Action Center has long advocated for all jails and prisons to provide access to all three FDA approved medications to treat opioid use disorder, and the Court’s decision in this case highlights the importance of offering all medication options as different patients have different treatment needs.

The court stated that even though the jail offers counseling and injectable naltrexone (one of the three FDA approved treatments), these other options did not undermine the Plaintiff’s claims because he had tried both naltrexone and buprenorphine (another FDA approved medication to treat opioid dependence) in the past and had not found them effective for him.  The Plaintiff’s doctor testified that his chance of overdose and death would be greatly increased if he was forced off his methadone treatment and that prior to receiving this treatment, he had overdosed several times and gone through four detoxifications. The court noted the absence of any medical evidence or individualized security considerations indicated that the jail’s decision was discriminatory.

“With up to 25% of the country’s incarcerated population suffering from opioid use disorder (OUD), it is time for jails and prisons to provide life-saving medication. We urge New York lawmakers to act quickly to ensure that the Department of Corrections is offering all three FDA approved medications to incarcerated individuals with OUD across the State,” says Paul Samuels, President and Director of the Legal Action Center.

Significantly, the Court noted that the Essex County jail failed to do any individualized analysis as is required by the ADA. The jail’s argument that it had a legitimate security interest in denying the Plaintiff MAT was found to be unsubstantiated by the Court. No evidence was provided as to why the jail couldn’t impose reasonable security protocols as is done in other jails across the country that provide methadone treatment.

“This case should serve as a wake-up call for states and localities across the country. The common practice of denying MAT in correctional settings not only increases illicit drug use, overdose, and death, but is illegal,” adds Ms. Friedman.

More information about this case can be found here via the Massachusetts ACLU.

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