Lawsuit: NY Jail’s Life-Threatening Ban on Methadone Treatment is Discriminatory and Unconstitutional

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
April 5, 2021 11:30 am

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NEW YORK –The New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project today sued Jefferson County over its discriminatory and life-endangering policy of denying prescribed medication to people with opioid use disorder in the Jefferson County Jail.

Opioid use disorder is a chronic medical condition for which medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD), sometimes called medication-assisted treatment (MAT), is often the only effective treatment. Without these doctor-prescribed medications, people with opioid use disorder suffer painful withdrawal and face an increased risk of relapse, overdose, and death—effects that are exacerbated for individuals recovering from opioid use disorder in jail. Incarcerated people are 129 times more likely to die of a drug overdose in their first two weeks after release, compared to the general population.

The lawsuit names plaintiff P.G., a New York resident who currently faces imminent detention at the Jefferson County Jail. There, jail officials will end his life-sustaining treatment under a ban on methadone therapy for people with opioid use disorder.

“I have been fighting to overcome my opioid addiction for over a decade, and I have tried so many different treatments and programs along the way. Nothing was effective until I was prescribed methadone,” said plaintiff P.G. “Receiving methadone treatment has changed my life. I’m drug-free, I have a stable job, and I just purchased a home. For the first time in years, I have hope for the future, but all of that could be lost if my medication is interrupted.”

Despite scientific consensus that MOUD is the standard of care for opioid use disorder, Jefferson County denies MOUD access to those detained at the Jefferson County Jail. Access to MOUD has been the subject of litigation across the country, including in Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington State. The suit filed today argues that Jefferson County Jail’s policy of prohibiting MOUD violates due process protections under the Fourteenth Amendment and discriminates against people with opioid use disorder, like P.G., in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and state anti-discrimination laws.

“No jail can deny life-sustaining medical care to people in its custody,” said NYCLU senior staff attorney Antony Gemmell. “That’s as true for people with opioid use disorder as for those living with any other disability. Jefferson County’s blanket ban on treatment our client needs to survive is cruel and discriminatory. The ban must be lifted now.”

Forcibly ending methadone therapy subjects people with opioid use disorder to excruciating withdrawal symptoms, as well as a significantly heightened risk of relapse, overdose, and death. It disrupts their treatment plan, leading to a sevenfold decrease in continued treatment after release. It also increases the risk of relapse into active addiction: Over 82 percent of patients who leave methadone treatment relapse within a year. And, most alarming, patients are nearly seven times as likely to die of drug overdose after release from jail or prison as a consequence of forced withdrawal.

“The opioid epidemic is ravaging our communities throughout the country, and jails and prisons are exacerbating this crisis by banning the basic medication necessary to treat opioid use disorder,” said Joey Longley, Equal Justice Works fellow at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “We are confident the tide is turning on this issue, and we look forward to the day that access to MOUD is not up for debate.”

In addition to Gemmell and Longley, NYCLU counsel on the case includes staff attorneys Jordan Laris Cohen and Terry Ding, deputy legal director Molly Biklen, and ACLU National Prison Project counsel includes senior staff attorney Maria Morris and Equal Justice Works fellow Joseph Longley.

You can find materials on the case here: www.nyclu.org/en/cases/pg-v-jefferson-county-et-al

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