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Judicial officials urge county to revive drug court with opioid settlement funds

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Some top-echelon officials with the local court system have appealed to Alamance County’s leaders to devote part of a legal settlement with the pharmaceutical industry toward a specialized court for drug-related offenses.

This delegation of judicial officials appeared before Alamance County’s board of commissioners on Tuesday in advance of a briefing on this eight-figure payout, which the county expects to receive through a national class action settlement against the manufacturers of opioid painkillers.

Led by Tom Lambeth, the county’s senior resident superior court judge, the court system’s representatives assured the commissioners that a “drug recovery court” would be a particularly good use for at least some of the funds that the county stands to receive.

Lambeth insisted that the county had derived much benefit from just such a program, which flourished early in his judicial career thanks to a now-defunct grant from the federal government.

Senior resident superior court judge Tom Lambeth

“Our community…is being ravaged by drug addiction, and it breaks my heart. . . I can think of no more direct or appropriate use of opioid [settlement] funds than to have a drug treatment court. . . and it’s really not very expensive. . . The judges and clerks are already here and they’re already salaried. . . the only main expense is to hire a drug court coordinator.”

– Senior resident superior court judge Tom Lambeth

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“We had it for three years until the federal funding ran out, and we had good success with it.,” added the superior court judge, who had personally presided over this venture as a junior member of the district court bench.

The resurrection of this program is, indeed, one of the allowable uses for the county’s share of the so-called “national opioid settlement.” This catchall refers to several deals that state, local, and federal authorities have wrested from various drug makers and distributers, whose aggressive promotion of prescription painkillers has been implicated in a nationwide spike in the misuse of dangerous opioid-based narcotics.

All told, some $56 billion is slated to be shared under these assorted arrangements – with roughly $1.5 billion going to state and local authorities in North Carolina. According to the local health department, Alamance County has already received more than $1.8 million from these court-approved settlements. This sum is nevertheless a mere fraction of the $16,105,082 that the county currently expects to amass over the 18-year span of the settlements.

The county, however, isn’t exactly free to spend these legal reparations on projects of its own choosing.  According to Ashley Barber, the local health department’s point person for the opioid settlement, these funds can only been used for particular purposes, which she laid out for the benefit of the commissioners on Tuesday.

Ashley Barber, Alamance County Health Department

Barber told the county’s governing board that these state-sanctioned outlays include various “high-impact abatement strategies,” such as “evidence-based” treatment for opioid addicts, housing and employment assistance for those in recovery, and “early intervention” to nip opioid abuse before it takes hold.

Barber also presented other, less-targeted “opioid remediation activities” that the county can launch once it completes a state-mandated “collaborative strategic plan.” These second-tier options range from advanced training for emergency workers to public information campaigns to discourage opioid abuse. This list also includes certain criminal justice initiatives – such as the creation of “recovery courts” to expedite drug-related criminal cases.

In his remarks to the commissioners, Lambeth lamented the demise of the recovery court that he once oversaw as a district court judge. He went on to contend that, since this program’s dissolution, the local court system has been forced to drop many drug-related cases because the defendants suffered fatal overdoses before the matter could be properly heard.

“Our community…is being ravaged by drug addiction, and it breaks my heart,” the judge proceeded to lament. “I can think of no more direct or appropriate use of opioid [settlement] funds than to have a drug treatment court…and it’s really not very expensive…The judges and clerks are already here and they’re already salaried…the only main expense is to hire a drug court coordinator.”

District court judge Larry Brown

“You know what the need is; you know how dire it is to have a drug treatment court. We need to do something different, and you have the ability to make that happen.”

– District court judge Larry Brown

On hand to lend Lambeth their moral support were a number other court system officials, including Alamance County’s clerk of superior court Meredith Edwards and Rick Champion, a former district court judge who was recently installed as the county’s first public defender. Also present on Tuesday was current district court judge Larry Brown, who ultimately offered some remarks of his own to the county’s governing board.

“You know what the need is; you know how dire it is to have a drug treatment court,” Brown declared during that evening public comment period. “We need to do something different, and you have the ability to make that happen.”

Barber, for her part, abstained from endorsing the proposed recovery court or any other potential outlays for the county’s settlement proceeds. She nevertheless pledged to return to the commissioners in the near future with a collection of proposed programs based on a formal assessment of Alamance County’s needs.

Yet, the value of a drug recovery court was already apparent to commissioner Pam Thompson, who had been publicly plugging this measure even before the county saw its first cent of the national opioid settlement in 2022.

“This is long overdue,” Thompson assured her fellow commissioners on Tuesday, “and the longer we wait, the more people we lose.”

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