Back to All Press Release

Class Action Lawsuit: NY Jail’s Life-Threatening Ban on Medical Treatment for Opioid Addiction is Discriminatory and Unconstitutional

NEW YORK –The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit in the Northern District of New York against Jefferson County over its discriminatory and life-endangering policy of denying treatment to people with opioid use disorder.

For decades, the opioid epidemic has impacted communities across the country. More than half a million people have died of opioid use disorder in 20 years, worsening during the coronavirus pandemic. Opioid addiction took the lives of 2,844 New Yorkers between June 2020 and June 2021, including 759 in the Northern District alone. Today, one person in the United States dies of opioid overdose every seven minutes.

The lawsuit names plaintiffs M.C. and T.G., representing a class of individuals currently incarcerated at Jefferson County Jail who have already been stripped of their life-saving treatment and are in various stages of withdrawal, as well as an untold number of class members who will enter the jail in the future and be subject to the same arbitrary withholding of treatment.

M.C. faces imminent detention at Jefferson County Jail, where he will be stripped of his medication. “My life fell apart as I became addicted to opioids, and it has been my methadone prescription that has allowed me to feel optimistic about breaking the cycle of relapse,” said plaintiff M.C. “I have worked so hard to get this far in my recovery, and all I want is to have a normal life. Cutting off my methadone would destroy my progress and my future.”

Jail officials have already ended T.G.’s life-sustaining treatment under a ban on treatment for people with opioid use disorder. “Jefferson County forced me to withdraw from my medication while I wait for my day in court,” said plaintiff T.G. “The cruelty and suffering I’m experiencing is destroying my ability to rebuild my life and get back on my feet.”

Opioid use disorder is a chronic medical condition for which medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD), sometimes called medication-assisted treatment (MAT), is often the only effective treatment.  Without these doctor-prescribed medications, people with opioid use disorder suffer painful withdrawal and face an increased risk of relapse, overdose, and death – effects that are exacerbated for individuals recovering from opioid use disorder in jail. Incarcerated people are 129 times more likely to die of a drug overdose in their first two weeks after release, compared to the general population.

Despite scientific consensus that “agonist” MOUD, including methadone and buprenorphine, is the standard of care to address opioid use disorder, Jefferson County denies access to these medications to those detained at the county jail. Access to MOUD has been the subject of litigation across the country, including in New York,  Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington State. The suit filed today argues that Jefferson County Jail’s policy of prohibiting MOUD violates due process protections under the Fourteenth Amendment and discriminates against people with opioid use disorder, like M.C. and T.G., in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and state anti-discrimination laws.

In September 2021, a federal court blocked Jefferson County jail from denying life-sustaining MOUD to NYCLU client P.G. after having sought a preliminary injunction in April when jail officials refused to confirm that his methadone treatment would continue.

“No jail can deny life-sustaining medical care to people in its custody,” said NYCLU senior staff attorney Antony Gemmell. “That’s as true for people with opioid use disorder as for those living with any other disability. Jefferson County’s blanket ban on the treatment our clients need to survive is cruel, discriminatory, and prioritizes stigma over science. The ban must be lifted now.”

Forcibly ending methadone therapy subjects people with opioid use disorder to excruciating withdrawal symptoms, as well as a significantly heightened risk of relapse, overdose, and death. It disrupts their treatment plan, leading to a sevenfold decrease in continued treatment after release. It also increases the risk of relapse into active addiction: Over 82 percent of patients who leave methadone treatment relapse within a year. And, most alarming, patients are nearly seven times as likely to die of an overdose after release from jail or prison as a consequence of forced withdrawal.

In addition to Gemmell, NYCLU counsel on the case includes staff attorney Terry Ding, deputy legal director Molly Biklen, and legal fellows Claire Molholm and Gabriella Larios.

You can find materials on the case here:



As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union