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State Fights Lawsuit To Allow Medically-Assisted Drug Treatment In Courts

Credit Melanie Tata/Creative Commons

An Eastern Kentucky nurse is suing the state for not allowing her to take addiction medicine like Suboxone or Vivitrol while she’s out of jail on bond.

The terms set by Floyd County District Court, where Stephanie Watson’s court case is still pending, prevent her from using medically-assisted drug treatment.

Most courts in Kentucky don’t allow those who are on probation, in jail or out on bond to use drugs that treat addiction because some, like Suboxone, are addictive.

Stephanie Watson was arrested for breaking into a Prestonsburg biohazard waste container to retrieve remnants from disposed drug vials.

Watson’s lawyer, Ned Pillersdorf, has filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Eastern Kentucky. He says that judges who refuse to allow addicts to use Suboxone and Methadone are part of a system that violates the Americans With Disabilities act.

“They don’t need to have judges or drug courts looking over their shoulder and saying we will approve or won’t approve that particular prescription,” Pillsersdorf said. “Our position is that opiate addicts should have the right to receive lawful prescriptions from doctors who are able to prescribe without interference from the court system.”

Opiate addicts have been recognized as being “disabled” as a result of a 2002 Sixth Circuit Court decision. Pillserdorf argues that preventing addicts from receiving drugs that are prescribed to them amounts to a denial of services under the ADA.

The Administrative Office of the Courts, which on its website describes itself as “the operational arm of the Judicial Branch,” is a defendant in the suit along with AOC Director Lorie Dudgeon and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

The state has responded to her complaint with a motion to dismiss the case, saying that it has no authority to tell county judges how to administer rules of their drug courts.

“The AOC is merely the administrative 'fiscal agent' that applies for federal grant funding on behalf of Kentucky’s treatment-options program called ‘Drug Court,’” says the complaint.

AOC officials were not available to comment on Friday.

The lawsuit comes at a time when federal officials are threatening to pull drug treatment funding from states that don’t allow medically assisted drug treatment in their drug courts.

Kentucky’s drug courts currently receive about $12 million in federal grants.

The AOC is currently evaluating whether to expand medically-assisted drug treatment programs in its drug courts.

Currently one Kentucky circuit judge, David Tapp, who serves Lincoln, Pulaski and Rockcastle counties, has been running a pilot project that uses the drug Vivitrol as part of medically-assisted treatment.

In late March, the Kentucky Supreme Court changed its blanket restrictions on medically-assisted drug treatment in the state. Previously, judges were only allowed to give addicts a six-month window to wean off addiction drugs. Now that restriction has been waved and full discretion has been given to the judges.

Pillersdorf says most judges still aren't on board with the practice and that prescriptions should be left to the doctors.

“Our position is it’s none of the court system’s business. If the doctor deems fit to prescribe these things the court system needs to stop interfering,” Pillersdorf said.

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