Criminal defence solicitor Robert Purcell (pictured) has asked whether American society has a different attitude to its current opioid crisis than to previous drug problems, because it affects a wider cross-section of society.
He put the question at the Law Society’s annual human rights lecture at Blackhall Place last night.
Judge Craig D Hannah, who oversees a successful jail diversion programme at his court in Buffalo, New York, delivered the lecture.
Purcell said the crisis has arisen because of legally prescribed drugs, as opposed to illegal use of drugs in the past. In most cases, users become addicted to pain-killing medication prescribed by their doctors. When their prescriptions are no longer filled, they turn to illegal alternatives such as heroin or the deadlier Fentanyl, Judge Hannah said at the human rights lecture.
Judge Hannah responded that if drug users come from a minority they have been thrown in jail but if they “look like” the authorities, the response is that they are sick and they need help.
“That’s a blunt way of putting it,” Purcell responded. “But what is important is that this might open everybody’s eyes to the fact that this [opioid addiction] can happen to anybody, given particular circumstances.”
Judge Hannah says that drug addicts in the past were not “every-day” individuals. He said that throwing addicts in jail had destroyed communities and destroyed families.
“A lot of the long drug sentences that we had were taking individuals away from their community for fifteen or twenty years.”
Taking fifteen or twenty productive years, away from families and communities, meant that a user’s livelihood, family, children and job prospects were gone, he said.
“You destroy that person’s well-being and ability to sustain himself,” he said.
“We’re not going to make that same mistake again,” he said.
Judge Hannah’s court in Buffalo, New York has diverted almost 500 drug users away from jail and into treatment since 2017.