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Courts have key role in combating opioid abuse epidemic, study finds

Courts have key role in combating opioid abuse epidemic, study finds

Loretta Rush

Chief Justice Loretta Rush delivers her annual "State of the Judiciary" address Jan. 16, 2019 in the House chamber to a joint session of the Indiana General Assembly. Also on the podium, at left, is Gov. Eric Holcomb and Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch.

Judges in Indiana counties, and courthouses across the country, must take a leadership role in combating the opioid abuse crisis, because it's coming — ready or not — directly to their courtrooms.

That's among the conclusions of a two-year study by the National Judicial Opioid Task Force, led by Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, that examined all aspects of addiction and its consequences for state judicial systems.

The task force's 36-page final report, available online at, acknowledges the crisis is so complex it can't be addressed by a single government agency or nonprofit organization.

Instead it will take a multidisciplinary, coordinated approach to devise meaningful solutions, and courts are uniquely positioned to bring together official and community stakeholders at the local, state and national level, the report says.

"The misuse of opioids such as heroin, morphine and prescription pain medications is not only a devastating public health crisis, it is critically affecting the administration of justice in courthouses throughout the United States," Rush said. "It's crucial that judges are involved in reversing this epidemic."

The report notes that courts already tend to be involved in many aspects of addiction's impact, from criminal trials involving drug users to taking custody of children in need of services.

Other government agencies, however, often fail to include courts when setting policies to combat addiction, making it even more important that judges adopt and promote court-based programs and strategies to address opioid use disorder, the report says.

Those can include making medication-based treatment more available, focusing on the opioid epidemic from a public health perspective and providing continuing education about substance use disorder to every person working in the justice system.

"For years, the justice system knew how to be 'tough on drugs,' now is the time for us to become 'smart on drugs,'" said Deborah Taylor Tate, task force co-chairwoman and administrative director of Tennessee courts.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, former director of the Indiana State Department of Health, agreed that everyone, including the courts, have a stake in responding to the opioid crisis.

"Just as addiction is complicated, so too is recovery — but we know that it is possible," Adams said.

"Connecting people to care is important with any chronic condition, but it's crucial when the individual is battling and opioid use or other substance use disorder. The earlier that connection is made, the better."

Rush noted many of the policies and programs recommended in the report already are in place in the Hoosier State, including partnerships with other front-line agencies, family recovery courts, and treatment in lieu of jail for many nonviolent offenders.

"Courts are in a unique position to support our most vulnerable customers — our children," Rush said in her 2019 State of the Judiciary address. "Future generations depend on their parents' sobriety — because from that sobriety comes safety, love and stability."


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