Opioids and prescription painkiller addiction has become a major public health crisis within the last decade in this country. These addictions have also presented problems for law enforcement, because they cannot be handled like most other narcotics in the country. With typical street drugs, officers are able to run stings and pinpoint major cartels, their leaders and people who sell at the street level. With opioids, while there is this element, there are also problems with finding who issues prescriptions – which are legal. “Pill mills” are pain management clinics, run by licensed doctors, who issue prescriptions to patients who often deal with debilitating pain and get addicted. The problem is, these prescriptions are difficult to trace, and link. Furthermore, patient privacy laws present another obstacle to investigators trying to halt the problem. Additionally, opiates are incredibly addictive, with the clients often becoming addicted as a result of legal doses administered after surgery or other medical issues.
New York has taken a progressive step in dealing with opioid crimes, by creating the first of its kind opiate court, which is designed to steer defendants to rehabilitation and treatment instead of criminal prosecution. Earlier this year, the Buffalo City court rolled out the program, screening everyone who was arrested in the area for opioids. If they came up positive, or as struggling with addiction, their criminal case will be placed on hold while they are sent to a treatment facility. The system is intended to be collaborative, with judges and prosecutors working with the defendants and their advocates to get them into an appropriate treatment facility and track to rehabilitation.
The opioid court is different from other drug courts in that, instead of having to wait a period of time before allowing their rehab, treatment will be available immediately to opioid addicts. The reason for this policy is because of the often fatal consequences of opiate addiction, with one attorney reporting that multiple clients died while their cases were pending. Buffalo is one area which the opiate addiction has hit particularly hard, with one person overdosing every day in Erie county. In 2016 alone, 296 people were confirmed to have died by overdose: over 5 people every week.
Although the court is in its infancy, it appears to be doing the job: 40 of the first 43 people who were directed to intervention instead of jail are currently in treatment programs. The overarching goal is to keep people alive, and get help, ultimately reducing their criminal behavior and recidivism. Other states have tried to combat the opiate addiction in different ways – Ohio recently came under fire for its drug courts using Vivitrol instead of felony charges. Vivitrol is an anti-addiction drug, similar to Suboxene, designed to address opiate addiction. In Ohio in 2016, 30,000 doses were ordered from the court in an attempt to fight addiction.
Drug courts are deemed to be largely successful – across the nation, around three-quarters of people who successfully complete treatments from drug court stay out of the system for at least two years after completion. It saves money in both reduced jail time and medical expenses, and reduces crime. While the efficacy of the opioid court in New York remains to be seen over the long-term, chances are that it will work to reduce crime, treat addiction and ultimately save lives.