New York Law Blocks Judges From Practicing Medicine From The Bench

"It's taken so long for this commonsense decision to be made."
Scott Olson via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Drug court judges in New York will no longer be allowed to order defendants in recovery to stop taking doctor-prescribed medications as part of their treatment, as the result of a new law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Public health experts say medication-assisted treatment such as Suboxone or methadone gives addicts the best chance at sobriety, but judges in New York routinely substituted their own opinion, arguing that those in their control should abide by strict abstinence.

The legislation was spurred by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, known as the drug czar, which announced in early February that drug courts would not receive federal funding if they continued to force addicts off such medications.

Kassandra Frederique, who works on the issue for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the ultimate lead sponsor of the legislation reached out to DPA in the wake of the drug czar's announcement, looking to write a law that aligned the state's policy with the federal policy.

Matt Curtis, policy director at VOCAL New York, celebrated the signing of the legislation but made a rare admission for an activist. "This is not a bill that we originated," he told HuffPost.

"This came from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy saying we're not going to co-fund state-level drug courts that do this. That was awfully helpful. It certainly sent the right signal," Curtis said. "Two legislators in New York saw the drug czar guidance and literally incorporated exact language from the ONDCP guidance into the bill."

The drug czar's move came after a HuffPost investigation spotlighted the practice in Kentucky’s drug courts.

"As the Huffington Post article pointed out, we have highly effective medications, when combined with other behavioral supports, that are the standard of care for the treatment of opiate addiction," Drug Czar Michael Botticelli said in a conference call with reporters when announcing the policy change. "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."

In the video above, a drug court judge in Kentucky explains why she practices medicine from the bench.

Reached for comment about New York’s legislation, the ONDCP said in an email that the New York move was in keeping with its own efforts, and that treatment centers that insist on strict abstinence should also be on notice.

“Our goal is to expand access to treatment, and to medication assisted treatment for opioid use disorders,” spokesperson Mario Moreno Zepeda stated. “We will continue working at the Federal level to increase access to these medications, as well as to strengthen policies and contractual language to ensure that grantees -- including criminal justice and treatment programs -- permit the use of all FDA-approved medications.”

New York has more than 140 drug courts. Across the state, heroin overdose deaths more than doubled from 2008 to 2012. In 2014, there were more fatal heroin overdoses in New York City than homicides. In Buffalo, there a 500-person waiting list to get into a methadone clinic.

The New York bill was a bipartisan effort. Matt Slater, chief of staff for Republican State Sen. Terrence Murphy, who co-authored the bill, said the feds' stance on drug court judges was part of the senator's motivation.

“If someone needs to be on some maintenance med to take that next step, they shouldn’t be denied the ability to participate in a drug court program,” Slater said. “It was just a commonsense piece of legislation.”

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, the bill's Democrat co-author, says she was spurred by the drug czar's policy shift and the need to encourage evidenced-based treatment throughout the state's drug court system.

"There was not a uniform policy across the state," she explained to HuffPost. "If someone was fortunate enough to live in an area where the drug courts allowed defendants to use addiction treatment drugs then that was good for their future life. In areas where judges would not allow them to use these medically prescribed addiction treatments, their future is dim.”

In 2014, a drug court judge on Long Island, Frank Gulotta Jr., forced a defendant off a successful methadone regimen. The defendant died of a heroin overdose several weeks later, a case that garnered attention in the region.

"It's been years, everyone's been talking about methadone and Suboxone. We've known this for a long time and yet it's taken so long for this commonsense decision to be made. This is going to benefit a lot of New Yorkers," Frederique said.

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