Rx for Drug Courts: Allow Effective Addiction Medication

LAC’s New Report on

“Medication Assisted Treatment in Drug Courts: Recommended Strategies”

Can Help Courts Save Lives

The opioid epidemic kills 78 Americans every day.

To address this crisis, President Obama and public health authorities have called for increased use of medication-assisted treatment (MAT).  Yet half the nation’s drug courts prohibit MAT, according to a 2014 survey.

MAT uses medications like methadone, buprenorphine (Suboxone) and injectable naltrexone (Vivitrol), in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to provide a whole-patient approach to treatment.  Hundreds of scientific studies have shown MAT to reduce illicit drug use, overdose, disease rates, and crime.

The refusal of America’s drug courts to use MAT is ruining the lives of thousands of opioid-addicted people in the criminal justice system.  Many of these men and women call the Legal Action Center after they have been ordered to stop taking their life-saving medication by courts and probation officers. Typically, MAT has helped them end illicit opioid use for the first time.  They do not spend their days seeking drugs, are starting to think about working and are able to spend time with their children.  In short, they are entering recovery.

Yet they are told to stop using scientifically proven treatment, against doctors’ recommendations.  If not, they will go to jail.  Those who try to comply usually will not succeed.  Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that forcing people to taper off MAT results in high rates of relapse.  These mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, also will serve unnecessary jail time.  Some will lose custody of their children.  Some will see their lives otherwise destroyed.

Why do courts prohibit MAT?

The most common reasons courts prohibit MAT include the mistaken belief that MAT “substitutes on addiction for another” and concerns that people will use MAT medications illicitly.  Distrust of treatment providers who use MAT and lack of familiarity with successful practices in other courts also contribute.

Fortunately, the tide is beginning to turn.  Federal drug court funding is now contingent on permitting MAT.  Some state legislatures, like those in New York and New Jersey, also are also requiring drug courts to permit MAT.  As a result, many courts are showing an interest in incorporating MAT.

LAC’s Report Aids Courts In Supporting Recovery.

The Legal Action Center’s (LAC) new report Medication-Assisted Treatment in Drug Courts: Recommended Strategies can help drug courts nationwide learn successful strategies for use of MAT.  The report features three in-depth profiles of courts with effective MAT programs and is based on interviews with 10 drug courts in urban, rural, and suburban settings.  While MAT is not appropriate for every individual, the report explains how courts can ensure that treatment decisions are individualized and evidence-based.  The report also shows that permitting MAT need not impose big burdens or require significant additional resources.

“Just a phone, a treatment provider, and a doctor – these are the key resources a court needs to incorporate MAT.”   ~ Drug court case manager

As the opioid epidemic continues to cost communities and families, it is crucial that the response by drug courts and the rest of the criminal justice system is grounded in evidence-based practices.

More information?

Read Medication-Assisted Treatment in Drug Courts: Recommended Strategies.  If you are being required to stop taking addiction medication by a drug court, probation, or child welfare agency, read Advocating For Your Recovery.  LAC may be able to help!

Written by Sally Friedman, Legal Director and Melissa Trent, Equal Justice Works Fellow Sponsored by The Friends and Family of Philip M. Stern

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