Revolutionary Treatment: The Opiate Intervention Court of Buffalo

If someone punches his or her own face, are there assault charges? If someone eats two family-size bags of Doritos every night for a week, does he or she get brought up on abuse charges? If someone were to walk a tightrope, does the court issue an arrest warrant for reckless endangerment? The answer to all of these questions is no.

However, answer this question: If someone abuses heroin or prescription pills that don’t belong to them, are there potential charges? The answer becomes a yes, even though no crime against anyone else has been committed. Plus, criminal charges, often heavy ones, are levied against the substance abuser. Why is the answer yes here? Especially when thousands of American people are fatally overdosing on opiates every year?

The Opiate Intervention Court, which started May 1st in Buffalo, NY, is changing the answer from a yes to a no.

Not treating drug addicts like criminals, but instead treating them for the disease of addiction, seems almost like common sense. Still, the Buffalo-based program is the first of its kind in the US to do what it does. So what does it do?

A First of its Kind

In 2014, the first year that set records for deaths from opiates in America, the city of Buffalo experienced roughly 175 deaths caused either by heroin or opioid prescription drugs, both of which fall into the family of opiates. Last year, Buffalo saw 300 deaths caused by opiates. The epidemic is everywhere nationally, but obviously the big city of western New York has it worse than some.

That’s why, starting on the first of May of this year, the city of Buffalo introduced the Opiate Intervention Court. As reported by local news network WKBW in late May: “With the support of local government, law and health service officials, this new court that started at the beginning of May will work with the city’s existing Drug Court, but will offer more immediate help to those suffering from addiction.”

So, since it’s the first of its kind in America, Buffalo’s new court system is truly revolutionary. Non-violent minor drug offenders, who fill nearly half of our jails, are not criminalized. They are helped. This is because the overwhelming majority of them has no criminal background, and simply acquired a disease… opiate addiction. Some studies suggest that up to 90% of such addicts, (most of them heroin addicts – some pill addicts), began with using legally-prescribed opioid medication.

Treatment begins immediately after the arrest. First there is a screening for opiate addiction. Next comes arraignment, after which “that individual is referred to an appropriate treatment program, with counseling, guidance and the support of the justice system and community from day one,” according to WKBW.

This is vastly different even from pre-existing drug courts, which have been around for thirty years. Before Buffalo’s new method, arrest, arraignment, and even jail time on occasion all came before any kind of treatment. This is still how it’s done everywhere else. Buffalo makes it seem outdated.

For Example

Let’s make up Betty, a non-violent, 27-year-old woman whose worst criminal offense before her arrest for possession of heroin last week was a parking ticket. Two years ago she broke her foot in three different places during a cliff-jumping accident. Her doctor prescribed her OxyContin and she became addicted. The prescription ran out, was not refillable again, and she turned to something much cheaper and much more readily available: heroin.

Today, Betty is a heroin addict, but functional in society. However, at the bank one day, she is extremely high on heroin, maybe even close to an overdose, and accidentally drops her baggy of heroin on the floor. There so happens to be an on-duty police officer in the bank who sees it. Betty gets arrested.

Now, in virtually every court of law across the country, Betty would be treated as a criminal. Depending on the state on which attorney she can afford, charges could range from probation to years of hard time. Neither scenario helps Betty get sober.

Let’s say that same exact thing happened last week but in Buffalo. She would still get arrested, but things would be much different from there.

How it Works

Betty would be screened for an opiate addiction the morning of her arraignment, prior to the arraignment itself. From there, she would be placed into an inpatient treatment program, run by professional experts. Also, she would have a curfew of 8:00 PM. Also, addicts like Betty in the Opiate Intervention Court are seen every single day, for 30 to 45 days, by City Court Judge Craig Hannah himself. He and fellow City Court Judge Robert Russell, Jr. are running the new court system together.

From there, Betty’s future depends on the severity of the drug charges. As written in the Buffalo section of BizJournals: “Once a defendant is stabilized in the program, a decision will be made by the Erie County District Attorney’s Office and the defense bar on sending the offender to drug court, according to [Judge] Russell.”

Charges are adjourned while participants are in the program, and if participants are successful, charges are usually at least lessened. “We could have the option to dismiss the charges. We could have the option to give a reduced plea. We have multiple options available to use if the person successfully goes through the program,” said Buffalo District Attorney John Flynn at a press conference in late May.

As of July 10th of this year, a total of 80 participants had gone through Opiate Intervention Court, and zero had overdosed. Ten warrants had been issued for failure to appear, but this is the worst outcome thus far.

Take Ron Woods, a real person from Buffalo who recently went through the program. At age 21, he became addicted to the opioid painkillers he was prescribed alongside his cancer treatments. Once the prescription was over, Ron turned to heroin. Flash forward through over a decade of addiction, and in May of this year, Ron, now 36, was arrested on felony drug charges. He was offered participation in the Opiate Intervention Court.

Ron was interviewed by the Associated Press, was the story was published by ABC. In the story, Ron spoke about the program with candid honesty: “This 30-day thing is like being beat up and being asked to get in the ring again, and you’re required to. This court makes it amazingly easy. Normally I’d be like, ‘This is stupid,’ but for the first time I had an optimistic outlook and I wanted to get clean.”

How it Came to Be

Buffalo, as mentioned, has a pretty awful opiate problem. In the 52.5 square-mile city alone, people are dying at a rate of nearly one per day. Therefore, several Erie County officials, judges and police officer among them, decided it was time to start treating opiate addiction more humanely. The county asked the US Justice Department for some federal funding, and received a three-year $300,000 grant. This was another first. No drug court in US history had ever received a federal grant. [Why not? Who knows…]

Anyway, the money helped create the possibility of treatment for participants, and as stated previously, the experimental court system worked. As written in the ABC article: “We have an epidemic on our hands. We’ve got to start thinking outside the box here,” said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. “And if that means coddling an individual who has a minor offense, who is not a career criminal, who’s got a serious drug problem, then I’m guilty of coddling.”

The court is ready to treat up to 200 people per year, and to have treated 80 in less than three months is well above par. Judge Hannah, the main proprietor of the system, has literally not taken a day off from work since May 1st when the court began. “Our goal is to save lives. That is our purpose. If saving lives means we got to put their criminal case on the bench for 30, 60, or 90 days, we have our partners in government who agreed to do it and we’re going to do it,” he said to WKBW.

Remember how Buffalo had 300 opiate deaths last year? Well we’re over halfway through this year, and there have been less than 70. It seems like improvement has already begun. Plus, Buffalo’s revolutionary court system has already inspired eight other US states to begin mixing treatment with justice: Alaska, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington.

A revolution in the treatment of minor drug offenders may have begun.

A Beautiful Future

A quite similar program in Buffalo recently received much more than $300K. In fact, the Erie County Family Treatment Drug Court has very recently received a total of $2,125,000 to be granted over five years. The grant comes from the US Department of Health and Human Services, and shows a major national interest in what’s going on in western upstate New York.

The money is to be used to “pair the authority of the court system with compassionate, proven treatment services toward the goal of improving the family unit and advancing lifelong recovery,” according to Niagara Frontier Publications, linked above. Does this sound familiar?

DA Flynn, along with Congressman Brian Higgins and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced the grant on Monday the 17th of July. “This significant grant will go far in helping our court system support those struggling with addiction,” said Flynn. The proof comes in two parts, each to be established using grant funding:

Celebrating Families!

This program will be offered to families with one or both parents who are substance addicts. The aim is to reduce addiction, but also to reduce domestic violence, child abuse, and neglect. The program incorporates the parents and the children, and promotes health and sobriety.


This program will “integrate behavioral and medical treatment providers into wrap-around services for families.”

Drug courts, such as the Opiate Intervention Court and the Erie County Family Treatment Drug Court, use evidence-based treatment methods that reduce addiction, crime, and recidivism (return to jail after a sentence). According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 75% of those who successfully complete a drug court program do not reoffend for at least two years. Also, drug court programs are 45% more successful than other sentencing options when it comes to reducing crime.

It doesn’t hurt that about $13,000 is saved per person who completes a drug court program. Out of the 3,200 drug courts nationwide, these two in Buffalo, NY are setting precedents for treatment methods. This isn’t the first time the city in western New York has achieved this.

If $300,000 helped keep 80 people alive and out of jail, imagine what $2.125 million is going to do for a city that is losing nearly one person to opiates every single day that goes by.

In Conclusion

City Court Robert Russell, who played a critical role in establishing the Opiate Intervention Court, also created America’s very first Veterans Treatment Court in 2008. Perhaps the rest of the country should be looking to Buffalo for answers. Just less than a decade ago, Buffalo gave us a drug court for veterans – one of the most-affected groups by the opioid epidemic. Now, this year, it gives us a revolutionary opiate court.

Please, the rest of America, please copycat what Buffalo is doing. The answer is right there, within the borders of a fifty-two-and-a-half square-mile city in western New York.