Chief justice: ‘We were tough on drugs, but now we need to be smart’

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Herald-Times on 09/25/2019 by Laura Lane

Indiana’s top judge says nothing in her lifetime has hit society and the courts as hard as the festering opioid epidemic that has swept the nation.

“This opioid crisis caught us all sort of flat-footed. We saw the addiction wave coming and we have not been good at addressing it.”

That was Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush speaking Tuesday at the conclusion of the third annual South Central Opioid Summit. The daylong event at the Monroe Convention Center was sponsored by the Monroe County Opioid Advisory Commission.

Rush co-chairs the National Judicial Opioid task force, created in 2017 to focus on tangible recommendations to courts to support judges in their effort to help people recover from opioid use disorder and embrace a life without drugs.

She reminded the 100 hearing her speak that substance abuse disorder continues to be an issue driving social issues and the criminal court system. Courts are the primary referral system for people struggling with addiction, she said, and people illegally using opioids are 13 times more likely than others to be charged with a crime.

“We need a model to deal with addiction, and we should have developed it during the years of crack cocaine,” Rush said.

Increases since 2016 in what are called “problem-solving courts” — 81 to 112 — and in family recovery courts — from 6 to 18 — reflect the progress the state is making.

She cited numbers showing that while Monroe County is not an epicenter for opioid use, the prevalence might startle some people. State statistics show that from 2011 through 2017, at least 136 Monroe Country residents died from opioid overdoses, and that more than 32 million opioid-based pills were prescribed to 126,000 people.

Rush contends it’s long past time for an attitude change where substance use disorder comes into play. “We were tough on drugs, but now we need to be smart. It’s more important to be smart,” she said. “Addiction is a disease. I truly believe addiction is a disease.”