Judges caught in tough spot in drug crisis

Judge Gary Lee made an intriguing assertion in court in Minot this week that reveals yet another institution’s difficulty in adequately addressing the community’s opioid abuse struggle.

Before eventually granting bail to a young woman who had been found with a needle in her arm and actually thought dead by responding police officers, Lee made a point of his discomfort in hastening the overdose victim’s return to the streets where she might do herself harm.

Lee is right to be nervous. In fact, it is slightly surprising that judges haven’t raised alarms like this more frequently. It is a welcome perspective, and it is good to see Lee make the point.

In this particular case, the young woman was only charged with a misdemeanor. The court’s potential actions were limited and surely a defense attorney would advocate for the woman’s rights.

However, Lee’s commentary was more ethical than legal. Imagine the positions of judges, beset with cases in which lives are ruined by drugs, but with limited options operating within a criminal justice and legal framework that is wholly inappropriate to address the challenges of addiction. It must be as frustrating as when police officers or paramedics end up reviving the same overdose victim repeatedly. Sadly, it happens.

The general public seems to be coming to terms with the enormity of the opioid epidemic. Law enforcement, health officials, attorneys (prosecutors and defense attorneys) and judges also recognize the severity and complexity of the problem.

Now if only the public would prompt honest debate and legislative action, there might be a break ahead in the steady stream of misery wrought be opioids.

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