June 7, 2018 News Release, ACLU of Washington
The ACLU of Washington has filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit against Whatcom County and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office for denying people with opioid use disorder (OUD) in the County Jail medications necessary to treat their addiction. The lawsuit challenges the Whatcom County Jail’s policy of refusing to provide people access to “Medication-Assisted Treatment” (MAT), including buprenorphine (Suboxone and Subutex) and methadone, even though it provides other clinically appropriate medications to inmates. This policy is harmful, unwise, and illegal. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids discrimination against people with OUD, who are just as entitled to medication as those suffering from any other ailment requiring medical treatment.
People addicted to prescription or illicit opiates have OUD, a chronic condition often accompanied by changes to brain chemistry. It is a protected disability under the ADA. By stabilizing physical and psychological cravings for opioids, MAT can help people manage their OUD and achieve better outcomes in recovery. Many people with opioid use disorder need to remain on MAT for years and in some cases, their entire lives to decrease the risk of relapse and overdose.
The ADA prohibits singling out a group of people because of their disability and denying them access to medical services to which they would otherwise be entitled. The Whatcom County Jail has a policy of denying people with OUD the medication they need while providing necessary medication to everyone else, which is discrimination.
The Jail’s policy also inflicts unnecessary suffering. People with OUD who are denied their medication suffer unnecessarily from opioid withdrawal. They also face an increased likelihood that they will overdose and potentially die if they relapse upon release from the Jail.
“The Whatcom County Jail’s categorical refusal to provide people with opioid use disorder the treatment keeping them in recovery violates federal law,” said ACLU-WA Equal Justice Works Fellow Jessica Wolfe. “It’s also dangerous. If a person in the Jail suffered from a heart condition and needed medication the Jail would provide it, but it denies access to Medication-Assisted Treatment, which reduces the risk of overdose and death. This is unsafe and discriminatory.” The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two plaintiffs who have been harmed by the discriminatory policy:
Plaintiff Sy Eubanks is a 46-year-old man with OUD. He became addicted to opioids at 18 when he was prescribed opiate painkillers when recovering from knee surgery to correct a high school wrestling injury. By his mid-twenties, Mr. Eubanks was using heroin. About 15 years ago, Mr. Eubanks sought help. Although he’s had some setbacks, he’s had good success using MAT when it has been available to him. He has requested MAT in the Whatcom County Jail but has not received it. Upon his release from the Jail, Mr. Eubanks wants to resume MAT treatment to stay off illicit opioids, and visit his family in Acme.
Plaintiff Gabriel Kortlever is a 24-year-old man with OUD. He first used heroin when he was 16 years old. His heroin addiction caused him to make some poor decisions, and he became involved with the criminal justice system. But in an effort to get back on track, and with the support of his mother and community corrections officer, he started Suboxone treatment. He was surprised at how well the Suboxone worked for eliminating his opiate cravings.
Unfortunately, when Mr. Kortlever entered the Whatcom County Jail he was not permitted to continue his Suboxone treatment. Mr. Kortlever is deeply afraid that when he is released he will have a hard time being reconnected to Suboxone services, and that he will go back to heroin.
Washington state is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. In Whatcom County, the situation is especially dire. The County has seen large increases in opioid drug overdose deaths over the last 15 years and had the second-highest opioid treatment admission rate in Washington from 2011 to 2013. Between the years 2012 and 2016, 69 people died from opioid related overdoses. And in 2016, more people died from opioid related overdoses than motor vehicle accidents in Whatcom County.
The Department of Justice recently reached a settlement with a skilled nursing facility in Massachusetts for violating the ADA due to its policy of not allowing patients to use MAT. The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis has also called for the use of MAT in criminal justice settings.
“When people who are getting Medication-Assisted Treatment for their opioid use disorder are able to stay on the medicine, the entire community is better off,” said Mark Cooke of the ACLU-WA’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “Government agencies should be supporting people in their efforts to overcome opioid addiction—not obstructing them.”
Filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, the lawsuit asks the Court to order the Whatcom County Jail to provide access to necessary medications for the treatment of opioid use disorder in compliance with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In addition to Wolfe and Cooke, ACLU-WA attorneys Lisa Nowlin and John Midgley are representing the Plaintiffs.
Read ACLU Washington’s news release on their website here.