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Drug addicted inmates will soon get medications behind bars

Published: Oct. 7, 2021 at 4:35 PM EDT
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NEW YORK CITY, New York (WWNY) - As of now, if you’re addicted to opioids and end up in jail, nothing requires that jail to give you medication to ease your addiction.

That’s about to change.

Governor Hochul signed five bills Thursday in New York City which change the laws surrounding opioid addiction to make them less punitive, and treatment easier.

One that will touch north country jails and taxpayers: a requirement that jails implement something called Medication-Assisted Treatment. It will require jails to give addicted inmates medication for their addictions as part of their treatment.

“Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that opportunity, to invest in people, give them something as simple as medication to help them deal with their illness while they’re incarcerated, just like we’d make sure they have their diabetes drugs or their cancer drugs,” said Hochul during Thursday’s signing ceremony.

“What we’re trying to do is remove barriers to treatment.”

The Medication-Assisted Treatment bill, and other legislation signed by Hochul, drew immediate praise from people who treat addiction. Addiction experts have long argued that opioid addiction is an illness, not a crime, and should be treated as such.

In Jefferson County, the Alliance For Better Communities issued a statement praising Hochul for “her leadership in signing these bills,” which the group said will help “reduce suffering and death caused by opioid addictions.”

There were 34 opioid overdose deaths in Jefferson County in 2020, and at least 17 so far this year, with another seven awaiting final determination.

But Hochul also had her critics Thursday.

Lewis County Sheriff Mike Carpinelli, who is running for governor as a Republican, said “I’m upset by it. I think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money, and I think it’s gonna bring more problems to all our jails across the state.”

“Why instead of actually treating the addiction problem are we giving them something that enables them to continue on with it?” he said.

“It’s the state’s twisted way of trying to ensure more votes from the left side and, you know, pandering to that,” Carpinelli said.

“Once again, there’s not one minute that I think it’s truly in their heart that they care about the person.”

The reaction of sheriffs in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties was more measured. Both Brooks Bigwarfe, St. Lawrence County Sheriff, and Colleen O’Neill, Jefferson County Sheriff, said they’ll follow the state’s orders. Both declined to offer an opinion about the wisdom of the new law.

Both said they’re confident they’ll be able to implement the new law within the 120 days they have before it takes effect.

Bigwarfe, like Carpinelli, pointed out that it’s an unfunded state mandate, so taxpayers will be paying for the new program.

Hochul also signed laws Thursday decriminalizing the possession of needles and syringes - Bigwarfe said he thinks that’s “dangerous” because it allows for the spread of needles, while O’Neill said she doesn’t have a problem with it.

The governor also signed laws making it easier to find and possess drugs like Narcan, which is used to treat overdoses, and a law which expands the number of crimes that can be referred for drug treatment.

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