On September 25, 2015 New York Governor Cuomo signed a new law stopping drug court judges from interfering with medication-assisted treatment (MAT) of defendants.
The bipartisan bill (S.4239-B/A.6255-B), passed with strong support by both houses in June 2015, affirms both the seriousness of the nation’s and New York’s drug problem and the state’s commitment to effective treatment.
Prior to the law’s enactment, judges in the state’s 146 drug courts could essentially practice medicine from the bench, requiring defendants to abstain from using doctor-prescribed medications such as methadone and suboxone to avoid prison. This practice undercut effective drug treatment, sometimes with tragic results: in 2014, a drug court judge forced a defendant off obviously effective MAT; in a matter of weeks, the defendant died of a heroin overdose.
The bill’s sponsorship and passage were spurred by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy’s (ONDCP) February 2015 shift in policy, stating that drug courts would not receive federal funding if they continued to force addicts off treatment medications.
The ONDCP announcement was made by the nation’s current Drug Czar, Michael Botticelli, who pointed out, “[W]e have highly effective medications, when combined with other behavioral supports, that are the standard of care for the treatment of opiate addiction. And for a long time and what continues to this day is…a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about these drugs, and particularly within our criminal justice system.”
As pretty much any attorney who has practiced before a judge can tell you, a judge often believes he/she knows what’s best. He/she is the judge and at least in the immediate future, your client is stuck with the judge’s decision. In the case of drug addicts, that can be a grim or even fatal immediate future.
The policy shift and supporting laws are attempts to deal with the nation’s worsening drug problem. For two examples: America’s deaths by drug overdose have surpassed deaths by motor vehicle accidents; and in 2014, the number of New York City deaths by heroin overdose was higher than the City’s number of homicides.
Responsive to the problem and keenly aware of the potential loss of federal funding, Republican State Senator Terrence Murphy and Democratic Assembly member Linda Rosenthal co-authored the bill and “literally incorporated exact language from the ONDCP guidance into the bill.”
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