Police departments and criminal court systems throughout the US are concluding that the current opioid crisis and drug addiction are not social problems to be solved by arresting people.

Law enforcement must practice its purpose of enforcing the laws, including laws against illicit drug use, public intoxication, and the like. However, any police officer will tell you that putting addicts in jail does little to nothing to help the underlying problem, which is the disease of drug addiction.

More jurisdictions are turning to drug courts and other novel judicial approaches so that prosecutions focus more on people selling drugs and divert more people with substance abuse disorders into treatment programs rather than jails. Here are some of their current strategies, according to a recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum.

Stopping Patient Brokering in Unregulated Sober Homes

Regions with large recovery communities and low regulation of facilities like sober homes deal with substance dealers who specifically target these vulnerable populations. Drug dealers know where their customers are, and they have no qualms about getting people in recovery addicted again.

As a result, there are regions where it is incredibly easy for people with drug addictions to fall out of recovery and into the hands of drug dealers. Then, rather than face the shame of telling their family, they may slip into a transient lifestyle that often involves interaction with the court system. Some jurisdictions are developing and funding task forces to develop policies and legislation that can prevent this type of predatory behavior by drug dealers.

Calibrating Sentencing Guidelines to the Substance

Federal prosecutors, understandably, look to prosecute the most serious cases, the ones that carry the most stringent federal sentences. Typically, this means prosecuting cases where the highest weight of drugs is confiscated. The problem is, mandatory minimum sentences vary from drug to drug, and a much higher amount of heroin is required for mandatory minimum sentences than for drugs like crack and meth.

One hundred grams of heroin, the amount required for a dealer to qualify for a mandatory minimum sentence, is equivalent to up to 5,000 $10 doses, each of which increases the risk of death of a heroin user. With mandatory minimums skewed against enforcement of laws against heroin, policy or legislative change may be needed to better target heroin dealers.

Increasing Referrals from Legal System to Medication-Assisted Treatment

Drug addiction

More jurisdictions are open to referring people to medication-assisted treatment for drug addiction.

The criminal justice system does refer more drug users to treatment programs than they once did. However, of those referred for opioid addiction treatment by the criminal justice system, fewer than 5 percent are directed toward medication-assisted programs. These programs, which usually include the use of methadone or buprenorphine, are considered among the most effective methods of managing opioid misuse and reducing overdoses.

By contrast, referrals from healthcare providers, insurers, and employers are much more likely to be to medication-assisted treatment programs. Perhaps it is time for the legal system to take another look at its referral tendencies and reconsider referrals to medication-assisted treatment programs.

Treating the Opioid Epidemic as a Public Health Crisis

The justice system is increasingly approaching the opioid drug addiction crisis as the public health crisis that it is, rather than as a crime spree that can be solved through incarceration. This approach requires the adoption of strategies like diversion from the court system, medication-assisted treatment, and prevention of overdose deaths.

The numbers show that the punitive and abstinence-based policies of two decades ago fail to deter drug use and the tools that may have worked in fighting drug addiction before the opioid crisis tend to fail in the face of such a devastating epidemic. This, of course, will require some people to reevaluate deeply held beliefs about addiction. The sad news is that the opioid crisis is widespread enough that few are left untouched by it, whether through one’s own opioid misuse, or that of a family member or other loved one.

The criminal court system is changing its approach to drug addiction in general and opioid abuse in particular as data increasingly and repeatedly shows that incarceration for drug use does not stem addiction. Treatment is the answer, and more jurisdictions are diverting people with drug addictions out of the court system and into treatment programs and saving the big prosecutorial guns for the people who make their living selling the drugs that kill people.

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