Denying Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) in the Criminal Justice System—Is It Legal?

Denying access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction has been a long-standing practice throughout the criminal justice system, with devastating consequences—unnecessary incarceration, increased spread of HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases; drug overdose, sometimes fatal; and recidivism rather than recovery.

Many arrestees and inmates in U.S. facilities are addicted to opioids, yet a December 2011 report from the Legal Action Center says that the vast majority of jails and prisons fail to offer MAT as ongoing maintenance treatment, even when it’s recommended or prescribed by a treating physician. At an estimated cost of about $4,000 per year, MAT successfully reduces addiction and related criminal activity, allowing people to lead productive lives, support families, and pay taxes—rather than costing taxpayers as much as $40,000 annually for imprisonment.

But some probation and parole agencies prohibit MAT, and courts often require detoxification from methadone or buprenorphine before defendants can complete drug court requirements as an alternative to jail or prison.

The Legal Action Center report, Legality of Denying Access to Medication Assisted Treatment in the  Criminal Justice System, (see link) explains why withholding access to MAT at any level of the criminal justice system—correctional facilities, courts, and parole and probation boards—makes no sense, and can violate federal antidiscrimination laws and the United States Constitution.

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, and require that each individual’s ability to take part in specific activities be evaluated objectively. Denying access to MAT at any level of the criminal justice system violates these Acts, whether denial is based on a blanket policy or carried out on a case-by-case basis, but without the required objective, individualized evaluation.

Moreover, jails and prisons that force those receiving MAT to detoxify without proper medical supervision and treatment risk violating the Constitution’s EighthAmendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, or the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process clause. Thus, medical best practices continue to elude the vast majority of those who have an opioid use disorder and are unfortunate enough to come up against the criminal justice system. They’re being forced to taper or go to jail.

Access Denied!

Despite advocates’ attempts to work with judges and probation and parole boards, denied access continues. Some examples:

  • Drug court judges who believe in MAT, but rarely refer people for treatment because they feel pressure from district attorneys.
  • District attorneys concerned with what they view as public safety risks in granting outpatient versus residential treatment, and who regard MAT as having the risk of abuse or diversion.
  • Defense attorneys who have little information about what’s appropriate or needed for their clients, or an understanding of best practices in treating opioid addiction, and aren’t prepared to advocate for medication-assisted treatment.
  • Judges and drug court staff who “have a rule: we just don’t let people stay on methadone and graduate from drug court.”
  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons guidelines for treating opioid addiction that call for medically supervised detoxification (including with methadone), cognitive behavioral therapy, and drug abuse education—but do not recommend methadone maintenance treatment, and prohibit treatment with buprenorphine as maintenance therapy.

AT Forum spoke with Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center and author of the Center’s report. Written at the request of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence (AATOD), the report is being distributed to government and criminal justice agencies, and to consumer groups and advocacy organizations.


“The report has focused significant attention on these discriminatory policies, but litigation is another key strategy to bring about the necessary change,” said Ms. Friedman. “Even a few federal court decisions holding criminal justice agencies liable for denying access to MAT could make a big impact.”

“The Legal Action Center is prepared to bring litigation when we find the right case,” said Ms. Friedman—“someone who’s willing to challenge a criminal justice agency and willing to fight to the end of the litigation. We’d welcome hearing from people who’ve been forced off their addiction medications in order to take part in drug courts or other alternative sentencing programs, or by any other part of the criminal justice system.”

Potential cases may be a successful patient in an opioid treatment program (OTP) with a job and family who is picked up on an old warrant and told to taper or face jail; or one where a physician recommends MAT and the judge demurs. “MAT as a treatment option shouldn’t be off the table because of a judge’s misconception that it’s substituting one addiction for another, or because of overblown concerns about diversion,” Ms. Friedman said. “The point of the ADA and the Rehab Act is that the government should make decisions on the basis of objective medical evidence that applies to that individual, and not on the basis of stereotypes or broad generalizations. ADA case law is quite clear that people must be evaluated individually.”

Criminal justice agencies and courts who deny access to MAT despite a physician’s recommendation generally haven’t faced legal consequences. “Many courts have found that the ADA prohibits employment and zoning discrimination against people who need or receive MAT,” Ms. Friedman pointed out. “But courts have not yet addressed the question of whether the criminal justice system’s failure to provide or permit MAT violates the ADA or Rehabilitation Act. We think now is the time.”

Suggestions for OTPs

Helpful publications and audiovisual presentations from the Legal Action Center include Educating Courts, Other Government Agencies and Employers About Methadone (2009), a PDF explaining how people in MAT can advocate for their rights so they can get in or stay in treatment, without discrimination; and Know Your Rights: Are You in Recovery from Alcohol or Drug Problems? Rights for Individuals on Medication-Assisted Treatment (see link).

If an OTP patient is forced off of methadone or prohibited from enrolling despite the recommendations of a physician, an OTP Director can contact the Legal Action Center (phone: 212-243-1313 or 1-800-223-4044; fax: 212-675-0286; email:

About the Legal Action Center

The only nonprofit law and policy organization in the U.S. whose sole mission is to fight discrimination against people with histories of addiction, HIV/AIDS, or criminal records, the Legal Action Center has for nearly four decades worked to combat stigma and prejudice and to help people reclaim their lives.

Legal Action Center Resources

Legality of Denying Access to Medication Assisted Treatment in the Criminal Justice System.
Accessed February 20, 2012.

Know Your Rights: Are You in Recovery from Alcohol or Drug Problems? Rights for Individuals on Medication-Assisted Treatment.,_9.28.10.pdf.
Accessed February 20, 2012.

Webinar: Medication-Assisted Treatment: Special Anti-Discrimination Issues. Accessed February 20, 2012.

Memo on Driving and Psychomotor Studies. Accessed February 20, 2012.

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Accessed February 20, 2012.

Additional Resources

National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations: A Research-Based Guide. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. Revised January 2012. NIH Publication No. 06-5316. Accessed February 20, 2012.

Whitten L. Prison use of medications for opioid addiction remains low. NIDA Notes, Research Findings. 2011 (July);23(5).
Accessed February 20, 2012.

Krantz MJ, Mehler PS. Treating opioid dependence: Growing implications for primary care. Arch Intern Med. 2004;164:277-288.
Accessed February 20, 2012.


  1. As project director of HHS Region 7 ATTC (Mid-America ATTC at University of Missouri-Kansas City), I’ve been tasked by two state substance use authorities in Kansas and Nebraska to address probation, corrections, and parole resistance to Medication assisted treatment. We have a workshop model for changing attitudes/beliefs of behavioral health specialists and think with some adaptions, this model might be adjusted for POs, etc. with participation of Legal Action Center expertise around legal issues, discrimination, etc.

    Would like to speak with a Legal Action contact re. training possibilities — we’re not requesting “free” consultation but obviously would not be in a position to pay private industry rates.

    My contact: Pat Stilen | Director | Mid-America ATTC
    University of Missouri-Kansas City | School of Nursing & Health Studies
    816-235-5055 |

  2. jennifer whitehead says:

    Delaware (like most US states) is currently involved in the practice of routinely denying MAT to existing patients who become incarcerated. What I find the most cruel is the practice of medicating pregnant women, only to deny (without proper detox) their medications directly after birth. Talk about cruel punishment! Number one, they are inflicting horrendous and needless suffering upon women who have just been through a traumatic experience–having a baby under DOC supervision, without the support of family and friends, and having to return to jail without her child. Number two, this practice is telling these women that, yes, your unborn child deserves proper treatment, but you do not.

  3. jennifer whitehead says:

    Believe me, I have seen the suffering people go through when they are denied MAT. The recidivism, the relapse, the overdose. You can’t litigate fast enough!

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