Goal of nation's first opioid court: Keep users alive

The Associate PressCity Court Judge Craig Hannah presides at Opiate Crisis Intervention Court in Buffalo on June 20. The first such program in the country puts users under faster, stricter supervision than ordinary drug courts, all with the goal of keeping them alive.

Niagara County officials and residents should be keeping a close watch on a new kind of court in Buffalo.

With the help of a three-year, $300,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department, the city has started experimenting with the nation’s first opioid crisis intervention court.

The new court is designed to get users into treatment within hours of their arrest instead of days. Participants are required to check in with a judge every day for a month instead of once per week. They are also subject to strict curfews.

The program has a simple, yet important, goal: Keep the defendants alive.

“The idea behind it is only about how many people are still breathing each day when you’re finished,” said Jeffrey Smith, the new drug court’s project director.

Where opioid addicts are concerned, preserving life has proven to be no easy task.

Officials in Buffalo came to the realization that a new approach was needed to do just that after a single week last year in which three defendants of the city’s traditional court system died of overdoses. Erie County health officials say 300 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, up from 127 two years earlier.

In Niagara County, the numbers aren’t good either.

The county tallied 88 overdoses between Jan. 1 and April of this year. Fifty-four of those involved people from Niagara Falls, with 11 more being reported in Lockport.

As was reported in the Niagara Gazette and the Lockport Journal, Niagara County also ranks No. 1 on the list of all 62 counties in the state in terms of newborns born to mothers who were suffering from addiction.

Nationally, the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered something of a mixed bag in terms of the current trend where the opioid epidemic is concerned.

On the plus side, the data showed that prescriptions, written by health care providers for highly addictive painkillers like Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, dropped more than 13 percent from 2012 to 2015. It was the first national decline in opioid prescriptions that the CDC has found since the prescription painkiller and heroin crisis erupted in the late 1990s.

Unfortunately, any progress is tempered by the realities faced in communities right here in Western New York and across the country where thousands are still dealing with the ravages of drug addiction.

CDC officials noted that prescription rates for opioid-based painkillers is still three times the level it was in 1999 and remains four times greater than the rate that opioids are prescribed in Europe.

The head of the CDC told reporters that, in 2015, enough opioids had been prescribed to keep every American medicated, around the clock, for three weeks.

Elected leaders, health officials and representatives from law enforcement agencies are now attempting to get a better handle on the situation in hopes of reducing the number of addicts, the number of addicted newborns and, most importantly, the number of deaths caused by drug overdoses.

It remains to be seen if the new experimental court program in Buffalo will have the desired outcome.

If the city is able to keep more defendants not only clean and alive then the investment will not only be worth it, but could lead to duplication for communities like Niagara County where, in light of recent data, new and effective ways of dealing with drug addiction should be explored.

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