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Ohio courts urged to fight heroin epidemic using tailored treatments

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -  Hundreds of Ohioans hooked on heroin and prescription painkillers are dying each year from unintentional overdoses at a growing rate.

This week, close to 800 members of Ohio's legal and law enforcement community were challenged by state leaders to find or improve the way their respective courts deal with addicts. The state is already testing a two-pronged approach in six counties, by implementing a medication assisted treatment program.

"There's so many different people with different needs and we need to see what works," said Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.

Allen, Crawford, Franklin, Hardin, Hocking and Mercer counties are testing the treatment on heroin users with a combination of Vivitrol, Suboxone and therapy.

Addicts in the program are reminded about the consequences if they fail to get clean, including the legal hurdles they could eventually face.

"It's a carrot and stick type of approach, obviously it has to be, that's what motivates," O'Connor said. "This is a treatment plan coupled with the authority and the force of the courts."

Representatives from courts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties attended Monday's Judicial Symposium on Opiate Addiction in Columbus.

Mahoning County Judge John Durkin said his drug court is far more progressive in many respects compared to other courts in Ohio when it comes to designating treatment and punishment for addicts.

"For the right person, we are utilizing medications, such as Suboxone and now Trexone, to try to assist us in helping them address their problem," Durkin said.

Durkin said this week's gathering is prompting new discussions on how to best help high-risk offenders here, especially those who may need resources from another specialty docket court.

Access to those resources all comes down to cost and Durkin is concerned one of the drugs being tested by the state, Vivitrol, could be out of financial reach.

"Money is limited, we'll have to see how we change what we're doing," said Durkin.

Durkin, like others, are waiting to see if the state's 18-month treatment trial run can save lives one addiction at a time.

Case Western Reserve University is tasked with monitoring the effectiveness and results of the pilot program. In November, the county teams that attended the conference this week, will be invited back to Columbus to share and exchange their progress and best practices.

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