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How the criminal justice system is failing opioid addicts

With the opioid epidemic reaching new heights, more and more people are finding themselves behind bars, facing serious drug charges. Yet that number may be higher than previously realized. According to a recent study out of Minnesota, more than half of the study participants who suffered from an opioid disorder reported a history of involvement with the criminal justice system.

A pattern thats difficult to escape

For many, the pattern is all too familiar: What begins with a valid prescription soon escalates into full-fledged addiction. An injury or surgery may trigger a legitimate need for heavy-duty pain control. Once they begin taking opioids, however, patients may find it increasingly difficult to stop.

Fueled by underlying medical conditions, disabilities or mental illness, users go to greater lengths to get their fix. Many resort to street drugs such as heroin when they can no longer fill their prescriptions. Eventually, they get caught. And rather than getting the medical treatment they need to escape the clutches of opioid dependence, they end up detoxing in jail – a rough road for anyone to endure.

A better approach

The Minnesota study observes that jail-induced detox is not an effective treatment for opioid dependence. On the contrary, it creates a higher risk of accidental overdose later, since users lose the tolerance they’ve built up. Effective drug treatment requires a medical – not punitive – approach.

In Pennsylvania, Chester County (and many others) offer a Drug Court program designed to rehabilitate rather than punish. Those who comply with the program’s requirements can benefit from significantly reduced sentences and even expungement of their criminal records.

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