Court To Rule On Whether Opioid Relapse is a Crime

By Bryan Le 10/30/17

"If it worked to punish people for addiction and relapse we would have a cured nation," says the defendant's lawyer.

Judge's gavel smashes drug pills.
The decision could change the way courts treat drug addiction patients forever.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court could set a precedent on whether an opioid relapse is a crime in the case of  Julie Eldred, who broke the terms of her probation when she failed a drug test.

Eldred was on probation for theft last year and tried her best to stay clean, but it was difficult.

"I was in the midst of active addiction, so I was actively using. But you're forced to go into this saying I'll be drug-free or you go to jail," Eldred said.

For the most part, Eldred was doing a good job. She was receiving addiction treatment and medication and saw a therapist, but when she admitted the relapse to her probation officer, the officer showed no mercy.

"She didn't look at that picture," Eldred says. "She didn't look [to see] that I had just gotten started getting everything in order. She just saw that I had a 'dirty urine,' and she just sent me in front of the judge to go to jail."

Eldred says that in jail, she received no addiction treatment and was instead in constant danger.

"I had a cellmate in there for murder, but she wasn't sentenced yet," Eldred recounted. "You're with people who know they're going to be sentenced and they know they're going to be in there a long time, so they don't care. There is a lot of violence — girls will jump you. It's scary."

Her lawyer, Lisa Newman-Polk, was eventually able to find Eldred space in a real treatment facility. Newman-Polk argues that having a disease should not be a punishable offense by the state.

"This idea that a court can order a person to stop using — with the threat of punishment — is not grounded in reality," Newman-Polk argued. "If it worked to punish people for addiction and relapse we would have a cured nation."

She urges courts to consider the science behind addiction and examine research that says incarceration does not help patients stop using drugs.

The Massachusetts Medical Society agrees with Newman-Polk’s assertions.

"Even Lindbergh bounced down the runway a couple of times before he became airborne," said Dr. Henry Dorkin, Massachusetts Medical Society President, "and we would not want to incarcerate people at the first sign of relapse if we're treating this as a chronic disease."

But some experts disagree. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals says that supervision and drug testing keeps people on the straight and narrow and that specialty drug courts already serve to provide treatment to people with addiction instead of punishing them. Boston College professor Gene Heyman argues that the threat of negative consequences can be beneficial.

"The empirical question at stake is, if you ask someone not to use drugs and you provide a reason not to use, can the person respond?" said Professor Heyman. "And the data say yes they can — they can stop using drugs."

Legal experts agree that no matter which way the decision goes, it will be a momentous one.

"It is probably going to be one of the most important cases that our court will bring down — over the last decade," said Martin Healy, the COO of the Massachusetts Bar Association. "And I think it will result in some dramatic changes to the way that society treats addiction."

The decision is expected to come in the spring.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter