COURT ORDERED SOBRIETY
- July 24, 2018
In 2016, a woman named Julie Eldred was arrested for stealing jewelry to pay for drugs. She was granted probation, but the judge set some conditions on her release. She was to complete addiction treatment and submit to periodic drug tests. She began an outpatient drug treatment program and started taking suboxone to help with her cravings. Then she relapsed. Her drug of choice was fentanyl, a potent and highlight addictive opioid. She asked her doctor for a stronger dose of suboxone in an effort to curb the relapse, and she managed to stay clean for several days. Then, 11 days after she was granted probation, she was subjected to a drug test. There were still traces of fentanyl in her system, and she was promptly incarcerated.
Eldred took her case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, claiming that being punished with criminal sanctions for a drug relapse was unconstitutional. Among the questions before the court were whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to incarcerate someone for having a drug addiction, and whether or not addiction is a disease – meaning that the relapse was not a choice. Eldred was placed in jail until her lawyer could find her a spot in another treatment program, and she spent 10 days in jail with no treatment and no access to suboxone. Her lawyers argued that it was this interference with her treatment that constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
Experts in addiction medicine signed a brief supporting Eldred, saying that addiction is a chronic disease that severely compromises the brain and that relapse was to be expected. Further supporting her case was the fact that she had risk factors for severe opioid use disorder, including a genetic predisposition for addiction, prenatal exposure to opioids, and other mental health disorders. Therefore, returning to drug use was not a conscious decision to defy the judge’s orders.
It was the opinion of law enforcement that putting drug users in prison protects them from themselves and protects society from drug-related crime. Experts who spoke in support of the prosecution attempted to argue against the addiction as disease theory, saying that people with addictions can choose to abstain with enough motivation. Motivation, in this case, being the threat of jail times.
In the end, the court ruled that it was not cruel and unusual punishment to jail someone who is on probation if they test positive for drugs. The punishment was not for addiction, they claimed, but for the actual crime that was committed. By keeping her in jail, they said, they may have in fact saved her life by preventing another relapse or overdose. Those on Eldred’s side of the argument – and most people who view addiction as a disease – saw this decision as a major setback.
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