When Tazewell, Virginia, resident Kimberly Bucklin, 29, was arrested on child abuse and drug possession charges last year, she was addicted to Oxycontin, the powerful, popular opioid pain reliever. Following her arrest, the Roanoke Times reported, Bucklin enrolled in a methadone treatment program to help her kick the Oxycontin habit. Now the judge who sentenced her to probation has thrown her in jail and sentenced her to serve three years in prison for her efforts. Her offense? Taking the very drug prescribed to her by doctors to kick the Oxycontin habit. That violated the condition of her probation, the judge ruled.
In an August 20 hearing, Bucklin's attorney, Tom Scott, the American Civil Liberties Union, and drug treatment advocates asked District Court Judge Henry Vanover to reconsider his ruling. Another hearing has yet to be set, but will not happen before October, Tazewell County Commonwealth's Attorney Dennis Lee said. In the meantime, Bucklin sits in jail.
The case illustrates in stark terms the conflict between law enforcement imperatives and the medical needs of recovering drug users. "It really, really is a medical decision and not a legal decision," said Scott, of Bucklin's need for methadone.
From a medical perspective, the methadone maintenance was working just as it should, testified Dr. Robert Newman, director of the Chemical Dependency Institute of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. "I would say her response was dramatic, positive and very rapid," he said. Methadone is an effective treatment for opiate dependence, Newman testified. Ordering Bucklin to get off methadone is illustrative of a "terrible conflict" between the law and medicine, he added.
Although Bucklin had been on methadone for months, Vanover ordered her to quit using it within six months. Against the advice of her physician, Bucklin began gradually cutting back, but after she suffered cravings and withdrawal symptoms, the Galax Life Center methadone clinic restored her to the higher dose and extended her treatment past the six-month deadline. She was charged with violating her probation in February and has been at the county jail ever since -- except when she had to be hospitalized for severe methadone withdrawal shortly after being locked up.
Commonwealth's Attorney Lee said judges in the area routinely bar probationers from taking methadone at a clinic. Bucklin is the first person to be sent to prison for violating such an order, but with more clinics opening in the region, she may not be the last unless the judges are educated about the treatment's efficacy in dealing with opiate addiction.
"Despite the fact that the federal government has spent millions in research to determine that methadone is the gold standard for treating opioid dependence, you still have what I would call unenlightened and misinformed representatives of the law enforcement community," said Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence.
Can Judge Vanover be enlightened and informed? Stay tuned.