POLITICS

Kentucky Considers Changes To Drug Courts For Heroin Addicts

02/25/2015 08:17 am ET | Updated Feb 25, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The Kentucky court system is reconsidering how its drug courts treat defendants thanks to a new federal policy that is pushing them to offer medications to opiate addicts.

The state currently bars medication-assisted treatments for addicts in its drug courts. State judges order defendants off medications like Suboxone and methadone when placing them in their diversion programs.

In early February, Michael Botticelli, the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that drug courts that receive federal money can no longer ban defendants from using treatments like Suboxone. The medication can eliminate cravings and, along with methadone, is seen by the medical establishment as the standard of care for opiate addicts.

Although the vast majority of Kentucky’s drug courts do not receive federal funding, a state spokeswoman for the court system said they are currently reviewing their practices. “Kentucky drug court is evaluating the very recent news regarding federal funding and does not have any definitive policy changes to announce at this time,” said Leigh Anne Hiatt, the public information officer for the Administrative Office of the Courts. It's not yet clear how the new regulations will be enforced and how the courts will respond.

A spokesperson for the governor declined to comment on any changes under consideration. Van Ingram, the executive director for the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, also declined to comment.

Glenda Shrum, the program supervisor for the drug court covering Knott and Magoffin Counties, which receives federal funds, said she would be open to allowing medications like Suboxone if that is what the state decides. "I'm not saying it would never happen here,” she said. “Whatever Frankfort sets for us we're going to do. If the state office in Frankfort says we have to use [the medications], then sure."

In late January, The Huffington Post published an investigation into how the drug treatment system was failing heroin addicts. It spotlighted Kentucky’s drug courts and their failure to embrace medical treatment options for opiate addicts. (Watch the video above for more.)

"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. And for a long time and what continues to this day is a lack of -- a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about these drugs and particularly within our criminal justice system,” Botticelli said on the call announcing the new policy.

Douglas Marlowe, the chief of science, policy and law with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, agreed with the new federal changes. “We recognize and value the use and requirements as a condition of funding,” he told HuffPost.

Marlowe said a majority of drug courts in the U.S. have included medications as part of their treatment options. His association conducted a survey a year and a half ago and found that 56 percent of drug courts utilize Suboxone or other medicines. Another 25 percent said they would offer the medications if they were available in their community or they could afford it.

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