People in Jail Deserve Effective Drug Treatment Not Forced Withdrawal

Nearly 30 years ago, when he was 18 years old, Sy Eubanks had surgery for a knee injury he got while competing on his high school’s wrestling team. His doctor prescribed him opioid painkillers, the dangers of which are now widely known. All Sy knew was that he liked the feelings his prescription gave him, and he wanted more. 

After graduation, Sy got a job as a logger. It was then he realized he couldn’t stop taking opioids. Whenever he did, he’d get so sick from withdrawal that he couldn’t work. To support his opioid addiction, Sy resorted to increasingly desperate measures: shoplifting, stealing, and pawning items to get money or drugs. By his mid-20s, Sy was using heroin, too. 

Opioids reduce pain, produce euphoria, and are highly addictive. They include prescription painkillers and street drugs heroin and illicit fentanyl. People who are unable to stop using them may have opioid use disorder (OUD), a chronic condition often accompanied by changes to brain chemistry. 

Sy kept trying to overcome his OUD, which is a disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). About 15 years ago, he went to a drug counseling center and received his first dose of methadone, one of three medications now used as part of MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment), a treatment of OUD. MAT limits the euphoric effects of opioids, relieves physiological cravings, and helps normalize body functions — all without the negative effects of having to obtain and use illicit opioids. It is widely regarded by the medical community as a very effective way to treat opioid use disorder and can be an effective way of reducing the risk of death from overdose. 

With MAT, Sy has had success controlling his opioid use disorder. When he was booked into the Whatcom County Jail in September of 2017, Sy wanted to continue his treatment. But staff at the jail refused to let him — it only allows MAT to women who are pregnant. 

Sy is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU of Washington against Whatcom County. The class-action suit, Kortlever et al v. Whatcom County, could have national implications. It asserts the county’s policy of refusing to provide access to MAT to people with OUD in jail discriminates against them on the basis of their disability and exposes them to grave danger of relapsing and overdosing when they get out. 

This is because the jail’s answer to OUD — withdrawal — does nothing to treat the underlying addiction and reduces one’s tolerance to opioids. There is a good chance that people who are forced into withdrawal in jail will start using again upon release, and now that their drug tolerance is lower, they’re more likely to take too much and die. 

Utilizing the ADA to assert the right to medication for people with OUD is a novel approach and an essential one. America has long treated drug addiction as if it were a problem of morality rather than a public health concern. This has resulted in the favoring of abstinence-based programs, instead of more effective medical interventions. 

Evidence that abstinence alone isn’t working can be found in every community in the country. In 2016, 42,249 people died of opioid overdose deaths in the United States. Washington lost 709 of these people. In 2016, at least 18 people died from heroin-related overdoses in Whatcom County, more than double the number of people killed by motor vehicle accidents. The fact that we possess a powerful tool to greatly reduce or even eliminate such deaths makes the willful refusal to use it all the more inhumane.  

To someone with a life-threatening medical condition, treatment isn’t optional — it’s critical. MAT can be as life-saving to a person with OUD as insulin is to a person with diabetes. Withholding necessary medical treatment from one group of people — non-pregnant people with addictions — while giving the very same treatment to a different group of people — pregnant women — is discriminatory and dangerous. 

It’s also shortsighted. 

When people with OUD get the treatment they need, they are better able to take care of themselves and their families and to contribute to their communities. Whatcom County should be doing all it can to help people with opioid use disorder get access to MAT, instead of obstructing them. 

View comments (18)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

Cibola County Correctional Facility. He stated that last week during chow there was food thrown in the trash. Later it was determined that 10 trays were still needed. Bernadette proceeded to instruct him to make trays with the food out of the trash. This is highly unacceptable the treatment in this facility is completely unbelievable. My husband has been there for 9 months and I have made over 8 complaints regarding health care, medical neglect, deliberate indifference from a nurse stating she could not help him “ or give him heroine” not acceptable.
It has been 3 weeks since he has placed a medical call for his tooth. I also told the head of security when I was at a visit. He has still not seen anyone for his tooth. If it is an absess then we all know how dangerous that can be. It took 4 months to be seen for his diabetes. Not to mention that he was forced to withdraw from methadone cold turkey. I made multiple complaints to Corecivc. Nothing has changed.

Anonymous

Addiction is a disease & should be treated as such. Putting ppl in jail that are ADDICTS deserve to be treated like anyone else that has a disease. If someone w/diabetes, or high blood pressure (hypertension), is in jail they will be given the medications that are needed. The same should be done for recovering addicts, or ppl that need addiction medication. We deserve to be treated like humans, & not animals that are not allowed their medication. Our government needs to change these laws, & make these police departments help treat the Addiction problem in this country. Prisons is where it's needed the most. They should be getting the needed counseling, & medications that are desperately needed to help start their recovery process!

Anonymous

The worse part of this Made Up Opioid Crisis is that Chronic Pain Patients and Cancer Patients are now being denied the medications that have allowed some semblance of life. All due to Heroin and Illicit Fentanyl. Less than 1% of all Opioid overdoses are a result of a prescription written by a doctor. This whole thing has gotten ridiculous. Be ready for the next time you go to the hospital for serious injury or surgery. You will be given Tylenol and told to go home. It is happening all over this country. The CDC has even come out to say their numbers that came out earlier this year were a misrepresentation of the numbers. Their numbers were 40 to 60% higher than the truth. By their admission. Their are many websites representing these people. Do your own research. People are killing themselves by the hundreds due to untreated pain. To throw a blanket over all Opioids and people that take them is WRONG. These medications have been around and used in a positive way for hundreds of years. Just because some people have made bad choices and are weak and easily addicted to anything they like, is NO reason to TORTURE legitimate Americans who have been taking their medications for decades without screwing up. Believe me or not. But the next time your kid breaks his arm playing sports and the doctors at the ER refused to give them anything but Tylenol, Ill bet you will be raising hell.

chughes

Why would a kid with a broken arm need to be treated with opioids anyway?

Anonymous

as someone who has had back surgeries into the double digits as well as knee surgeries and others i was and am prescribed opiats and have been on them for many many years. if not for those opiates i would not have any quality of life whatso ever but is a double edged sord because without them i have none either because my body is so dependant on them and can not function without them. i wish people could see that like myself i was a very hard working man in construction trades and was injured , it caused me to lose my job and career and be disabled and retire . now after many years in treatment for pain for my injury i can not just stop taking medication without getting very very sick. i can not fucntion for my family or my self . i totally understand for people to get help and never knew about oud or mat but it sounds like something that would work well and just because someone goes to jail is no reason not to provide them with care. ii have said for years if someone has a heart problem you give them heart medicine if diabetic etc! so why would you not give them medication for addiction or dependence.

David Wieland

Why is it that the ACLU is willing to stand up and back those addicted, But REFUSES to do the same for legitimate pain patients when it comes to access to proper pain medication ??? I'm NOT saying that those addicted should not have treatment options made available either as I believe that they should have them, But I also think that legitimate patients should not have their medications taken away because a very small percentage of people "Might" abuse these medications which help so many who suffer from incurable chronic pain conditions ............

Anonymous

What about the disabled? Millions of sick and injured patients are denied medically necessary medication (opioids) because of government policies that violate our Rights? Palliative care denied, surgical patients denied, cancer patients denied... ONLY because another person abused... Profiling and widespread discrimination and never ending severe pain... untreated severe pain is barbaric. Physical dependence is not addiction but the sick and injured have withdrawals when forced off medication but it’s nothing compared to the life of UNTREATED SEVERE PAIN. The body that was stable and could function and sleep is turned into a prison chamber of constant torture. What about the millions of law abiding people who suffer because we’re forced off effective treatment by doctors, or because pharmacist refuses to fill opioid prescriptions? ONLY because of policy and laws based on unscientific recommendations (medicine is not one size fits all) Untreated severe pain is dangerous and people are dying. We are sick and injured, we are Veterans and civilians, moms, dads and grandparents, we are law abiding people who never abused drugs, never had opioid use disorder, just unfortunate to have severe pain,... the “unintentional consequences” of the opioid crackdown... too long to be unintentional... Yes, we ask the ACLU for help. We’re still waiting. What about us? What about the discrimination against the sick and injured? Where is your compassion for us?

Anonymous

I just want to state my opinion on things..and stress that this is just my opinion..I don’t claim to know anyone else’s situation.
I am on disability for severe health problems. Due to one of the diseases I have, I suffer from severe neurapathy, weakened bones (resulting in breaks and herniations galore), and chronic pain..amongst a host of other ailments. Between all my health conditions,I am always unwell and always in pain.
I was first put on pain pills at 28 and eventually became completely dependent on them. My Drs would have been fine with keeping me on them forever. And I could not imagine a way to ever deal with my constant pain without them. But after years of living like that, I was a shell of my former self. My life was about my pain and my pain meds. Of course they lessened my pain to a degree at first..but over time came the constant needing of more just to achieve the same results. And my emotional well being could not be improved by them in any way.
After years, I couldn’t live like that anymore. I put myself into treatment to get off the pain pills. For me, they were a bandaid that was barely sticky anymore. That’s when I first was put on suboxone.
I know it doesn’t work for everyone. I know it’s looked down upon by the criminal justice system in general. But for me it was a life saver!
On suboxone I felt real pain relief for the first time. Complete relief..hell no! Better than pain pills..hell yeah! And much to my shock, my emotional well being, in relation to my chronic poor health began to improve. Seven years later, it still helps my pain the same..with no tolerance. Am I still going to have these medical problems and limitations for my whole life? Yes. Can I do more and do I feel better than on pain pills..still..oh yes!
In 4 weeks I am going to jail for a month for a shoplifting charge. I rang groceries through wrong at a self check out, in a moment of desperation. Because I had prior shoplifting charge in the past I was sentenced to a month. The jail will not give me my Suboxone. They also will not give me many of my other medications that I’m on for my various health issues. And they will not give me the strict diet I require for one of my medical problems.
My court appointed lawyer is doing nothing! He did nothing for my whole case. I am terrified of what’s going to happen to my health in jail. My doctors are very worried and noone will listen. Even though two ACLU cases just were decided in favor of the defendants getting their suboxone in jail in my state, my lawyer will not help. He says it’s because he was hired by the system to be my lawyer, therefore works for them!!!
I would have tried to apply to places like ACLU earlier, but lawyer tricked me into thinking he was going to assist me in this. Now it’s probably too late! Why is the system so into torturing addicts..even one who were medically addicted?! Why do we not have any rights?! If I die in there (not being dramatic...my health is so poor in other ways that my drs are highly concerned), they will not be held accountable.
I’m a mother of two, who has never had any charges besides the shoplifting, in my life. I have never violated my suboxone contract. I am a good person. The system is idiotic. And unfair. And should be considered criminal itself!!

Pages

Stay Informed