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New Arizona Law Could Help Opioid Users Avoid Prison

SB 1278 went into effect last week. The bill establishes a statewide program for the rehabilitation – rather than imprisonment – of some non-violent felons, including those charged with felony drug crimes. Until now, Maricopa County was the only county in Arizona with a pretrial intervention program aimed at felonies. The bill includes an appropriation of millions of dollars to fund the program.

While the new law does not specify which felony charges are eligible for the program – other than that the felony must be non-dangerous and non-violent – it does call for mandatory random drug testing and medically assisted treatment option.

The goal of pretrial intervention is to provide an alternative to prosecution, and to reduce recidivism. Like other pretrial intervention programs, eligibility, is determined on a case-by-case basis. And acceptance into the program requires an agreement to pay full restitution for any victims, and to complete the program. Upon successful completion, the participant avoids criminal prosecution, and the case is dismissed.

For those who may be concerned about the $2.75 million tab for the program, consider this. Many of the people who are eligible under the program are felony drug offenders (remember that possession of even a small amount of many drugs, including many opiates, can be charged as a felony). As a result, many people are incarcerated in Arizona jails and prisons for drug possession. And largely because of the harsh drug possession laws, there are so many drug users in Arizona jails that it costs the state $600,000 per day to house them.

The new law actually puts Arizona in the forefront of the states in dealing with the nationwide opioid crisis. Jailing drug users simply hasn’t worked. Among other things, almost 800 Arizonans died last year from overdoses of opioids. The number of deaths has increased by almost 75% over the past 4 years. By mandating that participants in the program receive treatment, and an opportunity to get “clean,” the hope is that we can reverse the staggering growth in the number of deaths resulting from opioid use.

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