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Lawsuit seeks access to withdrawal medication for prisoners

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Civil rights advocates have filed a lawsuit against the New Mexico Corrections Department seeking to ensure access for prison inmates to medication that reduces opioid withdrawal symptoms or cravings.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque by the ACLU and Disability Rights New Mexico on behalf of a 28-year-old woman incarcerated at a state prison in Grants.

The woman began using heroin as a teenager and more recently was diagnosed with "opioid use disorder" and prescribed methadone that reduces opioid craving and withdrawal. She lost access to the medication while incarcerated.

The lawsuit contends that denying inmates access to anti-craving and withdrawal medications such as methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone constitutes cruel and unusual punishment that is prohibited by the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Without access to their doctor-prescribed medication in prison, people with opioid use disorder suffer painful withdrawal and face high risk of relapse, overdose, and death—both while they are in prison and upon their return home," the ACLU said in a news release.

Corrections Department officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

New Mexico state government has been at the forefront of strategies to reduce the toll of drug use and addiction — from the distribution of overdose antidote drugs to legal immunity provisions for people who may implicate themselves in crimes by seeking overdose treatment for themselves or others.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation this year that allows broad access to test strips that can detect the presence of the potent opiate fentanyl and potentially help avoid deadly overdoses.