Lawsuit Aims to Compel NM Prisons to Provide Opioid Treatment

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Disability Rights New Mexico (DRNM) and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to compel the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) to offer medication to prisoners suffering from opioid use disorder. The Albuquerque Journal reported on the lawsuit in December 2022.

Currently, inmates addicted to fentanyl or heroin endure “painful withdrawal symptoms, high risk of relapse, overdose, and death” when they are forced to quit their medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) “cold turkey.” The lawsuit alleges that the state’s existing practices violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Opioid use disorder is a disability, and most New Mexicans have family or loved ones who have this disability and struggle with substance abuse or opioid addiction,” said DRNM Attorney Max Kauffman in a press release from the organization. “When people take steps to address their substance abuse disorder, our prisons and jails should be supporting them, not denying them treatment.”

The lawsuit also claims that depriving inmates of MOUD represents unlawful discrimination on the basis of disability—a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The complaint calls attention to the millions of Americans and thousands of New Mexico residents who suffer from opioid use disorder:

“The opioid epidemic is killing people in the United States at an unprecedented rate. Nationally, one person dies of an opioid overdose every seven minutes. In 2021, more than 107,000 people in the United States died of a drug overdose. This was a 25 percent increase from the previous year. Of those deaths, 75 percent involved opioids.”

The disturbing trend in opioid addiction and deaths has wreaked havoc on not only families but also municipalities and governments. These government entities have filed opioid lawsuits seeking compensation from corporations like Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart, for their role in creating and perpetuating the epidemic.

In September 2022, opening arguments were given in the bench trial for the State of New Mexico’s lawsuit against Walgreens, Walmart, and Kroger. The pharmacy giants stood accused of recklessly dispensing opioids and being responsible for more than 50 % of the state’s opioid pills, according to New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, who opened the bench trial.

Levin Papantonio Rafferty attorney Jeff Gaddy told Judge Mathew that less than 60% of pharmacists in the lawsuit completed their red flag checklists on prescription fills—a failure that facilitated the state’s opioids problem.