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Open Access Research

Methadone treatment providers’ views of drug court policy and practice: a case study of New York State

Joanne Csete and Holly Catania*

Author Affiliations

Open Society Foundation, 21-24 Millbank, SW1P 4QP London, UK

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Harm Reduction Journal 2013, 10:35  doi:10.1186/1477-7517-10-35

Published: 5 December 2013

Abstract

Background

Specialized drug treatment courts are a central part of drug-related policy and programs in the United States and increasingly outside the U.S. While in theory they offer treatment as a humane and pragmatic alternative to arrest and incarceration for certain categories of drug offenses, they may exclude some forms of treatment–notably methadone maintenance treatment (MMT). We sought to understand from the perspective of treatment providers whether this exclusion existed and was of public health importance in New York State as a case example of a state heavily committed to drug courts and with varying court-level policies on MMT. Drug courts have been extensively evaluated but not with respect to exclusion of MMT and not from the perspective of treatment providers.

Methods

Qualitative structured interviews of 15 providers of MMT and 4 NGO advocates in counties with diverse court policies on MMT, with content analysis.

Results

Courts in some counties require MMT patients to “taper off” methadone in an arbitrary period or require that methadone be a “bridge to abstinence”. Treatment providers repeatedly noted that methadone treatment is stigmatized and poorly understood by some drug court personnel. Some MMT providers feared court practices were fueling non-medical use of prescription opiates.

Conclusions

Drug court practices in some jurisdictions are a barrier to access to MMT and may constitute discrimination against persons in need of MMT. These practices should be changed, and drug courts should give high priority to ensuring that treatment decisions are made by or in close consultation with qualified health professionals.

Keywords:
Drug courts; Methadone; Buprenorphine; Criminal law; Incarceration