In Maine, as in most other states in the U.S., patients on medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder weren’t allowed to take their life-saving medications while incarcerated.
All that changed in October of this year, when the American Civil Liberties Union settled a lawsuit with the Maine Department of Corrections. The ACLU sued on behalf of Zach Smith, who has been on Suboxone for five years as treatment for opioid use disorder. He was told he would have to stop taking Suboxone during his incarceration. I wrote of the pending case in my blog on August 12, 2018.
We know that if denied his medication, he would go through physical opioid withdrawal and would be at higher risk for overdose death, particularly immediately after release from incarceration.
The ACLU took his case and settled a lawsuit with the Maine Department of Corrections, which ultimately agreed to allow him to continue on his medication. Jailers warn that this was a “special case” and that they would not necessarily allow other prisoners to take buprenorphine as prescribed by a physician. However, this appears to be a clear precedent for other patients and other lawsuits.
I think this is a landmark case for our patients. MAT is the standard of care, and it should be illegal to refuse to provide this treatment to people who are sentenced to incarceration. The diversion of Suboxone films has been an issue for many years beause patients in opioid withdrawal can’t access suboxone through any legal channel. This creates a black market for suboxone, and jailers across the country have complained loudly about this situation – that is of their own creation.
The ACLU is supporting patients in their fight to continue medication-assisted treatments during incarceration is other states, too. According to the ACLU website, a similar case is pending in Washington state.
If you are a patient – or know a patient – who is being denied medication-assisted treatment during incarceration, I hope you have a lawyer who is willing for fight for your rights. If you do not, consider reaching out to the ACLU in your state.