Federal Government to Require Drug Courts to Allow Opioid Maintenance Programs

By May Wilkerson 02/20/15

The Obama administration announced a startling change in federal drug court policy earlier this month.

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The federal government is cracking down on drug courts that block opioid addicts from receiving medication-assisted treatments.

Michael Botticelli, the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, announced the shift earlier this month. Drug court programs, which provide non-violent offenders with substance abuse treatment in place of jail time, will no longer be allowed to ban these treatments if they receive federal funding.

“If you are getting federal dollars that you need to make sure that people, one, have access to these medications [and two], that we’re not basically making people go off these medications, particularly as a participant of drug court," said Botticelli.

Semi-synthetic opioid replacements, like Suboxone, are widely endorsed by doctors as the most effective way to help addicts wean off harder drugs and have been proven to reduce overdoses and boost recovery rates. But many courts are uncomfortable allowing use of these treatments.

The Huffington Post reported that drug courts in Kentucky had enforced an abstinence-only policy for defendants, forcing addicts to go off medications like Suboxone.

"We've made that clear: If they want our federal dollars, they cannot do that," said Pamela Hyde, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is collaborating with the White House on the new policy. "We are trying to make it clear that medication-assisted treatment is an appropriate approach to opioids.”

A spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said that, under the new initiative, applicants for drug court grants will be required to affirm that they will allow access to opioid replacement medications and will not force defendants to wean off these medications in order to participate in the program.

"As the Huffington Post article pointed out, we have highly effective medications, when combined with other behavioral supports, that are the standard of care for the treatment of opiate addiction,” said Botticelli. “And for a long time and what continues to this day is a lack of—a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about these drugs and particularly within our criminal justice system.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.