A Swift Response Is the Best Medicine

February 4, 2013

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Ben W. Joseph was a trial judge in the Chittenden County Criminal Court, in Vermont, and he had a problem — one shared by judges across the country that results in billions of dollars of wasteful spending by governments every year. It was 2008, and substance abuse was soaring, particularly among young people whose drugs of choice were pharmaceuticals like OxyContin, a highly addictive pain killer that has an effect similar to heroin but is much easier to obtain. Each month in his Burlington courtroom, Joseph saw defendants who’d been arrested for drug-related offenses — from driving while heavily intoxicated to stealing to feed an OxyContin habit (an 80-milligram pill can cost $100 on the street).

Joseph saw how their lives spiraled out of control and created havoc for others. “I was seeing people who had drug and alcohol related charges come back over and over again,” he recalled. As the drug use intensified, so did criminality. “When people have serious alcohol and drug problems, it won’t take long before they’re stealing from their grandparents.” And when the pill market got tight, drug dealers pushed out more heroin.

What the defendants needed more than punishment was treatment. But delays in the justice system and lack of coordination with social service agencies meant that opportunities to intervene were regularly missed. Between a defendant’s arrest and trial, a case can drag on for a year or more.

One of the dawning recognitions in law enforcement and substance abuse intervention is that time is of the essence.

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