Health officials in Buffalo, New York, blamed 300 deaths last year on opioid addictions. That’s more than twice the number of deaths just two years before. Among the 300 were a young couple who had just entered drug court last spring. They didn’t make their second appearance. The young woman’s dad showed up instead with the news that his daughter and her boyfriend had passed away the night before.
“We have an epidemic on our hands,” says the local district attorney. “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.”
A $300,000 grant from the Justice Department allowed Buffalo to open the nation’s first drug court especially for opioid addiction. It’s meant as a pilot program to help other cities and states respond to the opioid crisis. The National Governors Association announced in April that eight other states will be working together to study what that response should look like. The states are Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Washington and Alaska.
Unlike with regular drug court, defendants enter the treatment system within hours, not days, of their arrest. Ordinary drug court requires a weekly check-in with a judge. Opioid crisis court requires check-ins every day.
The intensity is meant to keep people alive. “The idea behind it is only about how many people are still breathing each day when we’re finished,” the court project director told the Associated Press.
Court makes it as easy as possible to get clean, stay clean
The program is strict. Full detox with either inpatient or outpatient care, at least 30 consecutive, in-person meetings with the judge, 8 p.m. curfews and individual requirements. The Justice Department grant pays for case management, while treatment is typically billed through insurance.
As in drug courts, the defendants are typically people who have no prior criminal record and who have been arrested as a result of their drug use. Unlike typical drug users, however, opioid addicts often first encounter the drugs as legitimate prescriptions for serious health issues.
“This court makes it amazingly easy. Normally I’d be like … ‘This is stupid,'” said one man who has struggled with addiction after being prescribed opioids for cancer. “But for the first time I have an optimistic outlook and I wanted to get clean.”