At least four lawsuits are using the Americans with Disabilities Act to challenge the practice of most jails and prisons to forbid medication assisted treatment of drug addictions, The Marshall Project reports. The cases claim that denying addicted people their life-saving medication while they are incarcerated amounts to discrimination on the basis of their disability, an argument gaining traction among lawyers and advocates — even among some in law enforcement.
A lawsuit in Maine, brought by the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, was settled in September when the jail agreed to provide the plaintiff with access to buprenorphine. The ACLU then promptly filed another claim on behalf of a woman in similar circumstances. Another case, in Washington state, is in settlement negotiations. So far these rulings have been narrow, pertaining only to the individuals who sued. But “every time a prison or jail agrees that they’re going to do this, it makes it harder for other prisons or jails to say it’s impossible,” said Zachary Heiden, the ACLU attorney who filed the suits in Maine. The ADA says someone currently using drugs illegally is not considered an “individual with a disability.” But the law also says that even current users can’t be denied health care. Much of how the ADA applies in these situations is open to interpretation and hasn’t been tested in the courts.