In 1970, it was shocking when Janis Joplin accidentally overdosed on heroin and Jimi Hendrix died of causes related to barbiturate intoxication. Today, what’s shocking is that overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, see New York Times, Jan. 21, 2018, “1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours.”
Drug overdoses killed about 72,000 Americans last year, a record number that reflects a rise of around 10 percent, according to new preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control, see New York Times, Aug. 15, 2018, “Bleak New Estimates in Drug Epidemic: Record 72,000 Overdose Deaths in 2017.” Not only are more Americans using opioids, but these drugs are becoming more deadly. The new data shows that many people who overdose are simultaneously using multiple drugs like heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamines and anti-anxiety medication. Most people also do not understand the dangers that also exist in combining these types of drugs with ordinary over-the-counter medications, see New York Times, Aug. 24, 2018, “States Show the Way on Opioid Epidemic.”
The disease concept of addiction was first recognized in the New York City Criminal Court system when the New York City Criminal Court Drug Court Initiative opened the Manhattan Treatment Court in 1998. Over the past 19 years, drug courts making treatment available to nonviolent, substance-abusing offenders as an alternative to incarceration have expanded to include all five counties, (YC Criminal Court—Drug Court Initiative 2016 Annual Report, p.1.). Each court was developed as a collaboration among local prosecutors, the defense bar, treatment providers, probation and parole and probate officials and court personnel. In these drug courts, successful completion of the program results in a non-jail disposition which typically includes a withdrawal of the guilty plea and dismissal of the charges; failure to complete the program results in jail or a prison sentence.
Three of the five New York City neighborhoods with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths are in the Bronx. In January 2018, the Bronx Opioid Avoidance and Recovery Court opened, a new program for defendants charged with nonviolent misdemeanor drug possession who are diverted to existing treatment services. Because only misdemeanor offenders are eligible, charges are generally dismissed upon completion of the recommended intervention. Also in January 2018, the city filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against opioid manufacturers and distributors that seeks to recover half a billion dollars in current and future costs the city will incur to combat this epidemic.
The New York State 911 Good Samaritan Law, Penal Law 220.78, allows everyone, regardless of age, to seek medical help for themselves or someone else during an alcohol or drug overdose. The law provides protection for, among other things, people possessing alcohol, where underage drinking is involved; possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and sharing drugs. The law does not provide protection, for, among other things, sale or intent to sell controlled substances. (For more information, call 1-800-692-8528 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
As overdose deaths mount, some prosecutors are treating overdose deaths as homicides: looking to hold someone accountable, friends, family and fellow users may be charged using laws devised for drug dealers, see New York Times, May 25, 2018, “They Shared Drugs. Someone Died. Does That Make Them Killers?” In 15 states where data was available, The New York Times found more than 1,000 prosecutions or arrests in accidental overdose deaths since 2015. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of cases nearly doubled; dozens more cases were documented by the Times in news reports. In all, overdose prosecutions were found in 36 states, with charges against those who provided the drugs or helped the victim obtain them, ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first degree murder. A Long Island woman whose best friend texted her from a business trip asking for heroin was sentenced to six years after he died taking the drugs she sent him.
The abuse/misuse of opioids may impact some lawyers in their areas of practice. Those feeling burned out and stressed out from constant dealings with clients and their families on issues related to opioid addiction may include criminal defense lawyers whose clients overdose or experience drug-induced strokes or comas; Family Court practitioners whose workloads including helping children find kinship homes due to the death or incarceration of a parent; and family lawyers handling increasing requests from anguished parents about how to become guardians for their adult drug-addicted children.
Lawyers may also be affected personally by opioid addiction, whether those suffering are colleagues, neighbors, their friends, their children’s friends, or loved ones in their own families. As The New York Times has reported, while drug deaths get the most notice, more addicted people live than die and “for them and their families, life can be a relentless cycle of worry, hope and chaos.”
And of course, lawyers may be addicted themselves. Addiction to a wide spectrum of opiates may start with a prescription for pain medication for a medical condition and graduate to buying the drugs on the street or using stronger drugs, these include heroin and fentanyl, which can be the opioids of choice for some lawyers.
The New York City Bar Association’s (NYCBA) Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) is always available to help with a wide range of issues, including those related to opioid addiction.
LAP offers free and confidential services to lawyers, judges, law students and their family members who are struggling with substance abuse and addiction. LAP staff offers crisis counseling and intervention, and referrals to professionals and treatment programs that specialize in opiate addiction. In addition, LAP also provides a wide range of substance abuse, mental health, personal and career services, and free and confidential supportive counseling. The NYCBA’s Lawyer Assistance Committee, which supports LAP, provides confidential peer support and monitoring for addiction and mental health issues.
There are two ways to contact NYC LAP for a confidential and free consultation: calling the Confidential Helpline (212-302-5787) or sending a secure email, see http://www.nycbar.org/serving-the-community/lawyer-assistance-program. After contact has been made, LAP professionals will meet with you to assess your issues identify solutions, and; develop a plan of action which includes recommendations and referrals to experienced professionals.
Priscilla Lundin is a New York City lawyer and a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Lawyer Assistance Program Committee.