Chris Christie Signs Law Allowing Drug-Assisted Treatment for Drug Courts

By Keri Blakinger 08/13/15

Drug court participants will now have access to life-changing medications.

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This week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill into law that will allow drug court participants to use medication-assisted treatment – substances like methadone and suboxone. For addicts using opioid replacement therapy, this could be life-changing.

There are currently more than 2,700 drug courts across the country, but the courts’ openness to replacement therapies is something that varies greatly from state to state, and even from county to county.

In New Jersey, most drug courts have not allowed participants to use medication-assisted treatment, despite recommendations to the contrary by treatment providers. That means for drug addicts an arrest can mean a loss of access to possibly life-saving treatment that some consider a standard of care.

Earlier this year, The Huffington Post detailed the dangers of prohibiting replacement therapy for drug treatment. The in-depth article examined the possible overdose risk caused by detoxing without replacement therapy, and soundly condemned the treatment centers and drug court judges that categorically ban the use of such treatments.

In July, the New York Times published an opinion piece in favor of maintenance treatments. Contributor Maia Szalavitz wrote, “In the scientific literature ... there’s no question that maintenance works. Every expert group that has ever studied it—from the Centers for Disease Control to the Institute on Medicine and the World Health Organization—has determined that, for opioids, ongoing maintenance is superior to abstinence.”

Now, it seems that at least one state is getting the message. New Jersey’s Senate Bill 2381/Assembly Bill 3723 enjoyed bipartisan sponsorship and unanimous approval in the legislature.

Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) celebrated the law’s passage. "Medication assisted treatment for drug court attendees, like all other clinical decisions made by a provider for their patient, is a critical component in a person's treatment and recovery plan," Vitale said. "I thank the Governor for his support of this legislation and his continued leadership and support of Drug Court programs.”

Likewise, the Drug Policy Alliance’s New Jersey Policy Coordinator Amanda Bent said, “As a social worker and public health advocate, I am encouraged to see this important reform to our drug court system. New Jerseyans experiencing substance use disorders, including drug court participants, deserve access to treatment practices that are grounded in rigorous evidence and designed to support their well-being rather than perpetuate their failure.”

Bent added, “Especially in light of our ongoing concerns about opioid abuse, this reform will improve and save lives by allowing those who benefit from MAT (medication-assisted treatment) to utilize the treatment that best ensures their sustained recovery and long-term success.”

This legislative victory is just one of many that medication-assisted treatments have enjoyed recently. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals passed a resolution urging drug courts to adopt the use of medication-assisted treatment as a best practice. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also announced its decision not to fund drug courts that prohibit opioid replacement therapies.

After SAMHSA’s announcement and the Huffington Post story, Kentucky changed its drug court programs to allow opioid replacement therapies. Now, four months later, the Garden State has followed suit.

So what’s next? Change may be coming just to the north; New York is currently considering similar legislation to that passed in New Jersey.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.