Under the ADA, opioid addiction is not a character flaw, it is a disability. We’re suing to make the Whatcom County Jail treat it that way

Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Nearly thirty years ago, when he was 18 years old, Sy Eubanks had surgery for a knee injury he got while competing on his high school’s wrestling team. His doctor prescribed him opioid painkillers, the dangers of which are now widely known. All Sy knew was that he liked the feelings his prescription gave him and he wanted more.
After graduation, Sy got a job as a logger. It was then he realized he couldn’t stop taking opioids. Whenever he did, he’d get so sick from withdrawal that he couldn’t work. To support his opioid addiction, Sy resorted to increasingly desperate measures: shoplifting, stealing, and pawning items to get money or drugs. By his mid-twenties, Sy was using heroin, too.
Opioids reduce pain, produce euphoria and are highly addictive. They include prescription painkillers and street drugs heroin and fentanyl. People who are unable to stop using them have opioid use disorder (OUD), a chronic condition often accompanied by changes to brain chemistry.
Sy kept trying to overcome his OUD, which is a disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. About fifteen years ago, he went to a drug counseling center and received his first dose of methadone, part of a regimen called MAT, for Medically Assisted Treatment. MAT blocks the euphoric effects of opioids, relieves physiological cravings, and normalizes body functions—all without the negative effects of opioids. It is widely regarded by the medical community as a very effective way to treat opioid use disorder, particularly for its ability to reduce the risk of overdose death.
With MAT, Sy has had success controlling his opioid use disorder. When he was booked into the Whatcom County Jail, Sy wanted to continue his treatment. But staff at the jail refused to let him; it only allows MAT to women who are pregnant.
Sy is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU of Washington against Whatcom County. The class-action suit, Kortlever et al v. Whatcom County, could have national implications. It asserts the County’s policy of refusing to provide access to MAT to people with OUD in jail discriminates against them on the basis of their disability and exposes them to grave danger of relapsing and overdosing when they get out. This is because the jail’s answer to OUD—withdrawal— does nothing to treat the underlying addiction and reduces one’s tolerance to opioids. People who are forced into withdrawal in jail are likely to start using again upon release, and now that their drug tolerance is lower, they’re more likely to take too much, and die.
Utilizing the ADA to assert the right to medication for people with OUD is a novel approach, and an essential one. America has long treated drug addiction as if it were a problem of morality, rather than a public-health concern. This has resulted in the favoring of abstinence-based programs, instead of more effective medical interventions.

Evidence that abstinence alone isn’t working can be found in every community in the country. In 2016, 42,249 people died of opioid overdose deaths in the United States. Washington lost 709 of these people. In 2016, at least 18 people died from heroin-related overdoses in Whatcom County, more than double the number of people killed by motor vehicle accidents. The fact that we possess a powerful tool to greatly reduce or even eliminate such deaths makes the willful refusal to use it all the more inhumane.  
To someone with a life-threatening medical condition, treatment isn’t optional, it’s critical.  MAT is as life-saving to a person with OUD as insulin is to a person with diabetes. Withholding necessary medical treatment from one group of people while giving the very same treatment to a different group of people is discriminatory and dangerous.
It’s also shortsighted. When people with OUD get the treatment they need, they are better able to take care of themselves and their families and to contribute to their communities. Whatcom County should be doing all it can to help people with opioid use disorder get access to MAT, instead of obstructing them.
Sy Eubanks deserves better. Really, all of us do.