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Drug users on probation can be forced to stay sober or risk jail, court rules

BOSTON -- In a case that has attracted national attention, Massachusetts' highest court ruled Monday that judges in the state have the authority to order people to remain drug free as a condition of probation and under some circumstances order a defendant jailed for violating the drug-free requirement. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously that such a requirement does not violate the constitutional rights of people with substance use disorder or unfairly penalize them because of a medical condition beyond their control.

The court ruled in the case of Julie Eldred, who was jailed in 2016 after she tested positive for the powerful opioid fentanyl days into her probation on larceny charges. Eldred, who has severe substance use disorder, spent more than a week in jail after relapsing until her lawyer could find a bed for her at a treatment facility.

Eldred's lawyer argued before the high court in October that her client's substance use disorder made her powerless to control her desire to use drugs, and that jailing her effectively criminalized relapse -- which often happens in the recovery process. But the justices said the defendant's claims were based partly on untested science.

"Nor do we agree with the defendant that the requirement of remaining drug free is an outdated moral judgment about an individual's addiction," wrote Associate Justice David Lowy. "The judge here did not abuse her discretion by imposing the special condition of probation requiring the defendant to remain drug free."

The court called the actions of two district court judges and the state probation department "exemplary." The justices noted that Eldred had admitted to police that she had stolen to support her drug habit.

Most addiction specialists -- including groups such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and American Society of Addiction Medicine -- view substance use disorder as a brain disease that interferes with a person's ability to control his or her desire to use drugs.

Eldred was charged with larceny for stealing jewelry and sentenced to one year of probation, which allows people to avoid jail or prison if they meet certain conditions. She was receiving outpatient treatment when she relapsed. She violated no other conditions of her probation when she was sent to jail, where she received no treatment.

Eldred's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ordering defendants to remain drug free as a condition of probation is a common practice nationwide, and observers said a ruling for Eldred would have had big implications in Massachusetts and across the country.

Last year, Elred said drugs were often accessible to inmates during her time in jail.  "I wish they could spend one night in Framingham, all the people who think it's a good idea to send us there," she told the Boston Globe. "It's so degrading. It's so dehumanizing. If [judges] could experience it, they would not send people there at all."

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey's office had urged the court to uphold the practice, arguing that it can help people who are battling addiction and lower incarceration rates.

"Taking away the ability to impose the condition and to have those consequences and that aspect of accountability available when sentencing someone with substance use disorder can actually have a negative impact," Assistant Attorney General Maria Granik told the court in oral arguments last fall.