Experts Recommend New York Embrace Evidence-based, Public Health Approaches to Address Opioid Use and Overdose
Bill Follows Obama Administration Recommendation to Expand Medical Assisted Treatment
Albany — Last Friday, New York Governor Cuomo signed legislation to prohibit drug court judges from forcing defendants suffering from opioid dependency to stop using medication-assisted treatment (MAT), such as methadone or Suboxone, as a condition of avoiding prison, and affirms the value of these medications in drug treatment. Sponsored by Democrat Linda Rosenthal in the Assembly and Republican Terrence Murphy in the Senate, the bill (S.4239-B/A.6255-B) passed both the Senate and Assembly with overwhelming, bipartisan support last June.
The legislation continues a trend in New York toward a public health approach to drugs. Amid bipartisan national debates about the failure of the ‘war on drugs,’ criminal justice reform, and expanding access to treatment and other services for people who use drugs, a new generation of state elected officials is turning to solutions rooted in scientific evidence.
Medications including as methadone and buprenorphine (also known as Suboxone) are part of the gold standard of treatment for opioid addiction, and research has consistently shown that MAT helps reduce cravings, crime linked to drug use, overdose deaths, and HIV risk behaviors, such as sharing syringes. MAT has also been shown to help individuals stabilize their lives. Medication assisted treatment for opioid dependence is endorsed by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, the American Medical Association, and many other medical and public health organizations. Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration announced a major policy shift to lift and limit restrictions on doctors prescribing buprenorphine in an effort to increase access to MAT and curb opioid addiction rates.
“This law is a great step toward protecting the health of people who struggle with heroin or other opioid use and ends one of the worst abuses of New York’s dysfunctional drug court system,” said Matt Curtis, policy director at VOCAL New York. “No longer will New York force opioid users to choose between dealing with addiction and their freedom. We need to do the same for people who use other drugs, for whom the same kinds of medication are not available.”
The bill comes amidst a growing opioid overdose problem in the country and state. Nationally, overdose deaths have surpassed deaths from motor vehicle accidents. In New York City alone, there were nearly 10,000 unintentional drug poisoning (overdose) deaths during the years 2000-2013, an average of 700 unintentional overdose deaths per year. In 2013, more than three-quarters (77%) of overdose deaths in NYC involved an opioid.
Statewide, from 2003 to 2012, the number of poisoning deaths involving any drug more than doubled, from 777 deaths in 2003 to 1,950 in 2012. During the same time period, deaths involving opioid analgesics showed a more than four-fold increase, from 186 deaths in 2003 to 914 in 2012.
“Expanding medical assisted treatment in New York State drug courts is a good first step to help address New York’s growing heroin and prescription opioid crisis,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York Policy Manager, at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We applaud Governor Cuomo and the legislature in this case for embracing a strategy based in science, compassion, and public health that encourages voluntary treatment, rather than trying to address the opioid problem by relying on the criminal justice system. To save the lives of our loved ones, we need treatments, like MAT, but we also need better access to harm reduction programs, which are proven to reduce disease transmission and link people to care and treatment.”