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Addiction treatment to be required in NM prisons

A 35 mg liquid dose of methadone. The drug is the oldest and most effective of approved medications used to treat opioid addiction.
Kevin D. Liles
A 35 mg liquid dose of methadone. The drug is one of the FDA-approved medications for opioid use disorder. New Mexico prisons will soon be required to to treat people with medication for substance use disorders under a new law signed by the governor.

People in New Mexico state prisons are unable to access medication for addiction treatment unless they’re pregnant— even if they had been on medication before being incarcerated or were transferred from a handful of county jails that provide it. A new state law is going to change that.

By December, the Human Services Department must consult with corrections administrators and addiction treatment providers to create rules for the program. By the end of 2025, the Corrections Department must have the program up and running, at least for those who come in with a prescription. And, a year after that, state prisons need to be able to start someone on medication.

Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the UNM Health Sciences Center Dr. Nathan Birnbaum was a medical advocate for the new law. He encourages New Mexicans to ask themselves who they want returning to our communities upon release from prison.

“Are these individuals who we want to be still craving substances and greatly at risk for overdose and death?” he asked. “Or, do we want people to be on the medications that help stabilize them so that they can do the things that are necessary to regain their footing in the community?”

People recently released from lockups made up nearly 13% of New Mexico’s drug overdose deaths in 2020, according to the CDC. And access to medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, behind bars has also been shown to reduce the likelihood of committing crimes or getting incarcerated again.

While “medication-assisted treatment” is for opioid use disorder specifically, Birnbaum points out New Mexico’s law actually defines it more broadly — as the use of Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs for substance use disorders.

“So that certainly could mean alcohol use disorder,” he said. That means as much as one third of New Mexico’s prison population could be eligible for treatment, according to Birnbaum.

While the bill originally expanded the treatment programs to all county jails as well, the Legislature limited its scope to only state facilities during the recent session. More than $2 million is set aside in the budget for the effort.

Counties will, however, be at the rulemaking table this year, since some — including the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center — already have MAT programs and at times transfer people into state custody.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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  • People incarcerated in New Mexico have limited access to medication-assisted treatment for Opioid Use Disorder. A bill expected to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session would change that by making it state law for all corrections facilities in the state to consistently provide it. Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center Dr. Nathan Birnbaum treats patients returning home from prison and jail and has been working to get the bill in front of lawmakers.
  • State prisons are required under the U.S. Constitution to provide “adequate medical care” to those they incarcerate. However, prisons in New Mexico and 16 other states do not provide inmates with medication for opioid addiction, and neither do most of its county jails. Advocates are calling on lawmakers to expand this treatment in New Mexico lockups in the upcoming legislative session.
  • Medications like Methadone and Suboxone could help save lives and increase the chances of recovery when given to people behind bars, but it's rare to see that actually happen. On the next Let’s Talk New Mexico, we talk with a doctor who wants to make them available by law, and a lawyer who says they are a right, and we want to hear what you think. Send us an email, tweet to us or call in live during the show, Thursday, January 12, at 8am on KUNM.