Methadone and buprenorphine treatment for opioid use disorders saves lives. Over five decades, we’ve accumulated more studies to support this treatment than any other medication, device, or intervention that I can think of. And yet, opioid use disorder appears to be the only disease where medically untrained people dictate medical treatment. The above memo from a judge of the 24th District Court in North Carolina illustrates this all too well.
Let’s change that sentence in the middle of Judge Ginn’s memo: “Therefore, effective immediately, the use of insulin as a treatment for diabetes will no longer be allowed as a part of any probationary sentence in the 24th Judicial District.”
It wouldn’t make any sense, would it? People would wonder why a judge was involved in a patient’s medical care. They might even be tempted to believe a judge had no authority to dictate medical care.
I worked in Boone, North Carolina, when this memo was issued, and it caused a great deal of suffering for patients. These patients, contrary to the judge’s beliefs, were doing well on medication-assisted treatments. They were no longer injecting drugs or committing crimes to support their active addiction. Their involvement with criminal justice system almost always pre-dated their entry into treatment. Yet the judge proclaimed they must stop the very medications that were helping them become productive members of society again!
I wrote letters of advocacy and information, citing studies that support MAT. I encouraged patients, and told them to expect their lawyer to advocate for them on this issue. The patients said their lawyers often advised them just to do what would make the judge happy. Patients, understandably, were timid about pushing against a judge with so much power over their lives.
Ironically, many of the people Judge Ginn thought were doing well in his court were also our patients. It was widely known that probation officers’ drug tests didn’t detect methadone or buprenorphine at that time. Unless the offender told the truth about being in treatment on buprenorphine or methadone, the court never knew. I’d estimate that dozens of people successfully passed through Judge Ginn’s court while being treated with buprenorphine or methadone, without him ever knowing about it, due to inadequate drug testing. The people who told the truth were penalized by being told to quit life-saving medication.
I know Judge Ginn is now retired, but I suspect attitudes and beliefs of the judiciary in that area haven’t changed much.
One of the opioid treatment programs in the area tried to advocate for their patients, by seeking some sort of censure against Judge Ginn, but I don’t know what came from that.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) both strongly recommend expanding opioid addiction treatment with medications to criminal justice participants. Congress just passed a bill that recommends spending money to treat opioid addiction in jails and prisons That bill pushes for people with opioid use disorder to get treatment instead of jail sentences. Experts everywhere advocate for expanding medication-assisted treatments to patients involved with the legal system, whether in jail, on parole, or on probation.
All of these actions are great. But Judge Ginn is an example of the many obstacles to implementation of the evidence-based treatments that experts recommend. Particularly in rural Appalachian areas, people in positions of power actively thwart life-saving medical treatments.
I don’t understand how judges can get away with such irresponsible actions. To me, it appears Judge Ginn practiced medicine without a license. If I somehow lost my medical license but continued to practice, I’d be committing a felony.
What if Judge Ginn commanded a patient stop buprenorphine or methadone, and the patient died in a relapse? Would Judge Ginn have any liability, civil or criminal?
I don’t know what can be done about judges like him, but don’t they have to answer to someone? Are they appointed, or elected? If elected, perhaps we need to start understanding judges’ positions on medical treatments before we vote for them.