Judge in Recovery Offers Hope with Opioid Intervention Court

By Victoria Kim 08/23/17

Every morning, people locked up overnight in Buffalo are asked about their drug use—whether they’ve ever used, are currently using, or have ever overdosed.

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A judge in Buffalo, New York, is using his nearly two decade-long recovery to inform his unique role as the judge presiding over the country’s first Opioid Crisis Intervention Court.

Judge Craig Hannah has been in recovery for cocaine and marijuana over the last 17 years. This experience allows him to speak to the people who come through his court from a place of understanding. “I tell them the only difference between them and me is time,” Hannah told the Guardian.

What they say in his court stays in his court—he plays by “Vegas rules,” the judge tells participants. “I’m their biggest friend and cheerleader for the next 60 or 90 days,” he said. “I have to believe that this time he or she really wants treatment as opposed to all the other times they’ve just said anything to stay out of jail.”

Every morning, people locked up overnight in Buffalo are asked about their drug use—whether they’ve ever used, are currently using, or have ever overdosed. “If any question is answered in the affirmative, they are brought before the court,” says Jeff Smith, who established the Buffalo opioid court in May.

Completing treatment for substance use disorder could better participants’ chances of getting their charges reduced. This would mean detox, inpatient or outpatient treatment, morning counseling sessions, curfews, and face-to-face meetings with Judge Hannah.

The growing presence of fentanyl in the illicit opioid supply is proving problematic for authorities who are trying to keep up with drug abuse and deaths. “This particular substance does not allow individuals to make it for any length of time to get to the rehabilitation they need, and we were getting tired of notifications at drug court that we wouldn’t need to worry about defendants turning up because they were already dead,” said Smith.

The Guardian notes that Erie County, where Buffalo is located, averages one drug overdose death per day. In 2016, the city recorded 300 deaths from opioid overdose—a significant increase from 127 opioid overdose deaths reported in 2014.

Other judges have expressed interest in Hannah’s specialty court—a sign that a less punitive approach is gaining at least some ground.

“I think everyone is coming to grips with this as a health issue,” said Hannah. “Twenty years ago they were locking them to keep them away from the substance. That didn’t work ‘cause the second they got out they still had the same illness.”

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

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