Imprisonment For Relapsing At Center Of Debate In Massachusetts

By Victoria Kim 10/03/17

The Massachusetts Supreme Court must soon decide if court-ordered sobriety is reasonable.

Man on his knees being handcuffed by police.

A Massachusetts woman found to have violated her terms of probation by relapsing on fentanyl is at the center of a debate that’s said to impact future cases regarding how we define substance use disorder.

The state’s highest court is now considering the question: Is it reasonable for the court to order a person with substance use disorder to stay sober?

Julie Eldred, 29, tested positive for fentanyl just weeks after being found guilty of larceny for stealing jewelry. She was ordered to one year of probation, which required that she remain drug-free during that time.

But because she relapsed and violated her probation, she was jailed for 10 days until she could find a bed in a treatment center. According to the Star-Telegram, Eldred had been participating in an outpatient treatment program for her drug use when she relapsed. 

Now her lawyers are trying to convince the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts that it’s unreasonable to force a person with a drug problem to abstain. “For the person who suffers from substance use disorder, a court order to be drug free is effectively a court order to be in remission of one’s addiction,” argued Eldred’s attorney, Lisa Newman-Polk.

According to a written appeal by her lawyers:

“Julie Eldred did not ‘choose’ to relapse any more than a person who has hypertension chooses to have high blood pressure, a person who is homeless chooses to sleep in an alley, or a person who is destitute chooses not to pay court-ordered fees or restitution. In light of our contemporary understanding of substance use disorder as a chronic, relapsing, and eminently treatable brain disease, mandating that Eldred remain drug free and then jailing her when she ‘fails to comply’ is cruel, arbitrary, and fundamentally unfair.”

But prosecutors with the state attorney general’s office countered that “drug-free and testing conditions of probation are constitutional” and necessary for “promoting public safety and helping defendants with (substance use issues) to achieve recovery.”

Prosecutors say their argument is based on the “proven assumption that most people with drug addiction retain the ability to exercise choice.” Disallowing the state’s ability to impose rules and consequences, which create some “aspect of accountability,” would have a “negative impact,” they said.

The former Drug Czar (aka Recovery Czar) from the Obama administration, Michael Botticelli, gave his two cents on the case: “To, in essence, incarcerate someone because they relapsed, without any other criminal behavior, I think is antithetical to the understanding that addiction is a disease,” he said.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr