America’s first opioid court strives to keep users alive and get them back on track

America’s first opioid court strives to keep users alive and get them back on track

Last year, three defendants overdosed in a single week. Buffalo’s regular drug treatment court realized that it was not in a position to handle the heroin and painkiller crisis.

Buffalo has decided to experiment with the country’s first opioid crisis intervention court. It can get users into treatment within hours of being arrested instead of days. It also makes it compulsory for them to check in with a judge each day for a month, instead of once a week, and imposes strict curfews.

“The idea behind it is only about how many people are still breathing each day when we’re finished,” court project director, Jeffrey Smith said.

The program will be funded with a three year U.S. Justice Department grant of $300,000. The program started in May and intends to treat 200 people in a year. It will be a model that can be replicated by other heroin-wracked cities.

According to health officials in Buffalo, opioid overdoses caused 300 deaths in 2016 which is higher by 127 from two years earlier. An example is a young couple who died before their second court appearance. The father of the woman informed the judge that his daughter and her boyfriend had died the previous night.

“We have an epidemic on our hands… We’ve got to start thinking outside the box here. And if that means coddling an individual who has a minor offense, who is not a career criminal, who’s got a serious drug problem, then I’m guilty of coddling,” said Erie County District Attorney, John Flynn.

Drug treatment courts came up in response to crack cocaine in the 1980s. They took people in after they’ve been arraigned and in some cases released. Detox, inpatient or outpatient care, 8 p.m. curfews, and at least 30 consecutive days of in-person meetings with the judge are included in the opioid crisis court.

“This 30-day thing is like being beat up and being asked to get in the ring again, and you’re required to,” said Ron Woods after one of the daily meetings with City Court Judge, Craig Hannah. Ron Woods is 36 years old. His use of heroin began with him being addicted to painkillers that were prescribed to him after cancer treatments when he was 21. After being arrested on drug charges in May, he agreed to intervention. He hopes to kick the habit which has stolen the lives of two dozen friends. He also hopes that the charges against him are reduced or dismissed.

Woods also attends daily outpatient counselling, submits to drug testing, works at his family paving business and attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, even though he is not required to do so.

He has been through programs before. “This court makes it amazingly easy. Normally I’d be like …‘This is stupid,’. For the first time I have an optimistic outlook and I wanted to get clean,” he said.

The court is part of a nationwide attempt to think of new ways that will use the criminal justice system to address the opioid crisis. Alaska, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington will study how the treatment can be expanded within the criminal justice system.

The coordinator and case managers from UB Family Medicine, a University at Buffalo medical practice, who are in charge of enforcing curfews, doing wellness checks and transporting patients, are paid for by the grant. Insurance gets billed for the treatment.

Judge Craig Hannah has not taken any days off since the program has begun. He does not rush through the people in the opioid program even though he still carries a full City Court load.

The sessions are conversations about the weather, the weekend, and work, not interrogations about the person’s drug use. Judge Craig Hannah describes his philosophy as tempering justice with mercy.  “We’re just trying to save their life at this point and to stabilize them, get them back on track,” he says.

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