LEBANON -- Two women getting monthly opiate-blocking shots through a new court program told a southwest Ohio judge Monday that they are taking back control of their lives from heroin.
Warren County Common Pleas Judge Robert Peeler has been helping pioneer the injection program in Ohio. Dozens of other judges and corrections officials across the country are also trying programs using the drug Vivitrol in efforts to curb heroin's national surge.
"I've come a long way," said Thomalena Kingsland, 39. After eight months in the program, she told the judge, she has a steady job and will soon be involved in an effort to help alcohol addicts.
"Just having the opportunity of the Vivitrol shots has just completely changed everything," said Megan Noe, 26. She has been doing community service work, is interviewing for jobs, and the former nurse hopes to return to school.
Peeler told Noe he could see a noticeable difference in her, and felt she was a smart person back on the right track.
Noe dabbed her eyes.
"It's still going to take a long time," she said. "I feel like Vivitrol has given me a chance."
Agreeing to the shots and stringent conditions including attending regular counseling could enable the women to avoid months of prison time if they fully comply.
Warren County court administrator Jennifer Burnside said the program has 17 participants, with the first now in his ninth month. The only dropout so far was a woman who became pregnant and unable to receive the opiate-blocking drug.
She said 16 others are being assessed for the program, based on physical, psychosocial and other factors.
Advocates of Vivitrol injections, federally approved in 2010 for opiate treatment, say the long-lasting effect gives heroin users a buffer for post-release counseling and resisting old urges.
Some skeptics question whether it's been proven effective enough to warrant the time and expense. Some critics also say taxpayers shouldn't be helping pay for treatment for criminals.
There are also potential side effects such as liver damage and severe injection site reactions.
"It was worth taking the chance," Kingsland said.
An Ohio grant is helping pay for Warren County's program, and Peeler said getting people out of jail and into jobs allows for insurance-paid injections.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has been following the program and visited drugmaker Alkermes' Wilmington, Ohio, plant to learn more.
"We need new and innovative approaches to get people off the addiction," Portman said.
He said the heroin epidemic is costly in many ways, from the costs of prison recidivism to losing people from the workforce because of their addiction.
Peeler will take part June 30 in a statewide judicial symposium in Columbus on ways courts are combating heroin and prescription painkiller problems.
Peeler's courtroom proceedings Monday also included a defendant whose crime was too serious for him to avoid prison. Adam Patrick, 30, pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and will serve 11 years. Two other men were charged with murder in the drug-related case.
"This is all about heroin," Patrick said, saying he hoped he would at least emerge from prison clean and sober.
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