May 2, 2019: The Legal Action Center (LAC) applauds both the recent proposed settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit, Kortlever v. Whatcom County, in which the Whatcom County Jail agreed to provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder (OUD) to all individuals incarcerated there with medical need, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that upholds the District Court of Maine’s preliminary injunction requiring a jail to provide a woman with buprenorphine while incarcerated (Smith v. Aroostook County).
While it’s estimated that at least half of the country’s jail population have substance use disorders, only 10% of facilities offer addiction medicine as part of their treatment services. LAC’s Vice President of Legal Advocacy, Sally Friedman, explains, “These cases send an unmistakable signal to the overwhelming majority of jails in our country that they can no longer get away with denying individuals life-saving medication for opioid use disorder. Denying evidence-based treatment is not only inhumane, but also violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Constitution.”
In 2011, LAC issued a report that provided the seminal analysis on the legality of denying access to MAT in criminal justice settings. The First Circuit has now become the first federal appellate court in the country to affirm that prohibiting MAT in jails may violate the ADA. The Whatcom County proposed settlement is also groundbreaking because it is the first case requiring a jail to provide MAT to all people with OUD in the jail when it is clinically appropriate. Both cases represent enormous victories in the effort to increase access to addiction medicine inside the criminal justice system. MAT has been shown to reduce illicit drug use, crime, and the spread of communicable diseases.
Paul Samuels, LAC’s Director and President states, “The Legal Action Center has long-advocated for jails and prisons throughout the U.S. to provide all three FDA-approved medications to treat opioid use disorder. As we face a continually escalating overdose crisis, it is imperative that all criminal justice settings pay attention to these critical lawsuits and provide the life-saving medication that incarcerated individuals with OUD need and deserve. The criminal justice system needs to be part of the solution to the current crisis, not a hindrance to vital treatment.”
You can also read this NPR article about the First Circuit decision where Sally speaks to the broader implications of the ruling, as well as why denying addiction medication to a person with opioid use disorder violates the ADA. Similarly, Sally was interviewed by KCBS Radio in San Francisco, and you can listen to that recording here.
Original post updated on 5/8/19 to include links to news coverage.