Opioid summit focuses on treatment, best judicial practices

As the audience in the Indiana Convention Center ballroom listened to a woman’s frantic 911 recording, Marion Superior Judge William Nelson relived the moment his wife made that call after finding her 20-year-old son’s body in his bedroom, lifeless from an overdose.

“Ten years ago, if you were a drug addict appearing before me in court — look out,” Nelson said. “You were a junkie and you made the conscious decision to pop that pill or stick that needle in your arm. You were a criminal committing an offense to support your habit. And you deserved to be punished.”

But that 911 call changed his mind.

“To my colleagues on the bench, I urge all of you today to rid yourselves of that mindset if you in fact share it,” he said to the crowd gathered for the Statewide Opioid Summit on Wednesday. “Let’s get over that crime versus addiction barrier; let’s make it easier for those who suffer from a substance use disorder to get the help they so desperately need.”

He was met with applause by almost 1,000 people including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, community leaders and medical professionals.

The Indiana Supreme Court convened teams from all 92 Indiana counties to attend the Statewide Opioid Summit: A Medication Assisted Treatment and Addictions Primer for Justice Professionals.

The event is part of the judicial branch’s pledge to help fight the opioid public health epidemic. Sessions focused on the science of addiction and evidence-based treatments for substance use disorders such as medication assisted treatments. It also discussed legal implications of those treatments and the role justice professionals play in the process.

Overdose deaths in Indiana increased 21.6 percent in 2017 compared to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.

“This is why we’re here today,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush said. “We are indeed in a crisis that is getting worse by the day.”

Rush chairs the National Judicial Opioid Task Force, which aims to work alongside state, local and federal agencies to tackle the opioid epidemic’s ongoing impact on the justice system. She said the goal for the summit was to create a framework for future crises, to empower community leaders to address the epidemic, and to provide next-step tools for every region of the state.

A handout was provided for Indiana Court judges to use on the bench to educate and train themselves on evidence-based treatment, best practices, FDA-approved medications, overdose reversal medications and more. Rush said the bench card can better serve judges and justice professionals going forward. 

Dr. Leslie Hulvershorn of the Family and Social Services Administration said she wanted the summit teams to better understand the nuts and bolts of the science of substance abuse disorders, as well as evidence-based treatment that exists.

“It’s still considered optional in some places to offer treatment to mental health or substance abuse disorders, and as far as the science is concerned, it’s really not optional. It’s mandatory and essential to save lives,” Hulvershorn said. “We’re excited to link in our experts with the judicial system and see how the courts can use that in innovative ways.”

Nelson hopes conversations and efforts like these can prevent just one more mother from having to make the same call his wife did all those years ago.

“For trial judges particularly, the idea of giving medicine for an addiction is a difficult concept to accept,” Nelson said. “I’m going to guess that most of us are, or have been, opposed to medication assisted-treatment on the belief that this form of treatment merely substitutes one addiction for another.”

But, he added, the notion that addiction is a crime or at least a moral failing is a concept his fellow judges need to get rid of.

“If we are ever going to make progress in this seemingly endless battle,” Nelson said, “working together in community with one another, and better educating ourselves in our options, including medicated assisted treatment, is essential.”


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