RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In this country, the opioid crisis is raising a question - are drug addicts committing a crime when they relapse? The question's being considered by Massachusetts' highest court. It's the case of a woman who was sent to jail after failing a drug test while on probation. The woman argues she's being punished for having the disease of addiction. Deborah Becker of member station WBUR reports.
DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Last year, 29-year-old Julie Eldred was put on probation for theft. Shortly after that, she failed a drug test and was sent to jail.
JULIE ELDRED: I was in the midst of active addiction, so I was actively using. But you're kind of forced to go into this saying, like, I'll be drug-free or, you know, you go to jail.
BECKER: Even though Eldred complied with her other probation conditions, such as finding an outpatient addiction treatment program and a therapist, she says her probation officer wasn't swayed.
ELDRED: She didn't look that I'd just gotten started getting everything in order. She just saw that I had a dirty urine and sent me in front of the judge to go to jail.
BECKER: Ten days later, Eldred was released from jail when her lawyer found a residential treatment bed. That lawyer, Lisa Newman-Polk, brought Eldred's case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Newman-Polk argues that addiction is a medical condition, so it's unconstitutional to incarcerate someone for relapsing because that's part of the disease.
LISA NEWMAN-POLK: An order to be drug-free is an order that a person who suffers from substance use disorder needs to be in remission or cured of their addiction. It's not practical or reasonable in view of what we know about the brain science and what we know about addiction.
BECKER: The science of addiction is mentioned in all of the briefs filed in this case. A brief from the Massachusetts Medical Society says relapse is a symptom of addiction that needs to be treated, not punished. Dr. Henry Dorkin is the society president.
HENRY DORKIN: Even Lindbergh bounced down the runway a couple of times before he became airborne. And we would not want to incarcerate people at the first sign of a relapse if we're treating this as a chronic disease.
BECKER: But the opposing briefs argue that addiction is not a chronic disease that leaves someone powerless over drug use. One of those writing on that side is Gene Heyman, a senior lecturer in psychology at Boston College. He cites studies that say many people stop using drugs and alcohol on their own, oftentimes because they face negative consequences if they don't.
GENE HEYMAN: The empirical question at stake is if you ask someone not to use drugs and you provide a reason not to use it, can the person respond? And the data say, yes, they can. They can stop using drugs.
BECKER: The Massachusetts attorney general points out that Eldred was on probation for theft, and she did eventually go into drug treatment because otherwise she would go to jail. The AG says specialty drug courts already work to get help for addicted defendants rather than incarcerate them. Both sides say this case raises big questions for the criminal justice system. Namely, if courts don't punish drug users for relapsing, do they punish for theft and other crimes committed to support drug use? And where did judges draw the line? Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants hinted that the court's final ruling will help answer those questions.
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RALPH GANTS: This is a really challenging issue, and each side needs to come to grips with it because judges have to do this each and every day.
BECKER: A ruling from Massachusetts' highest court is expected by spring. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston.
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