Drug courts celebrated their 25th anniversary last year. Hailed as the most compassionate way for the criminal justice system to deal with addicts, drug courts were designed to balance punishment with rehabilitation. Many drug court judges oppose opioid maintenance and require patients to become completely abstinent as a condition of participation or graduation. They believe that maintenance simply amounts to swapping one drug addiction for another. This critique betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of opioid pharmacology and addictive behavior.
The federal government is cracking down on drug courts that refuse to let opioid addicts access medical treatments such as Suboxone, said Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Many longtime supporters of drug courts have become dismayed by the extent to which the courts now reach into the lives of people whose only infraction was to light up a joint. More Americans are arrested for pot possession than any other drug offense, with more than 650,000 such arrests in 2012. Some pot users who might have simply faced a fine in the regular court system are instead getting moved into the drug-court system for months on end. They are often required to pay for expensive treatment programs and risk jail time if they break program rules along the way. (See also: Moving Away from Drug Courts)
On a recent evening, some 50 people turned up for their weekly reckoning at Judge Joel Bennett’s drug court in Austin, Texas. Those who had had a good week—gone to their Narcotics Anonymous meetings and stayed out of trouble—got a round of applause. The ones who had stumbled received small punishments: a few hours of community service, a weekend in jail, a referral to inpatient treatment. Most were sanguine about that. Completing the programme will mean a year of sobriety and the dismissal of their criminal charges.