One Pulaski County Judge is attracting widespread attention for spearheading an effective approach to getting people off drugs.
David Tapp, longtime judge in Pulaski Circuit Court, which covers not just this area but also Lincoln and Rockcastle Counties, has been making trips to northern Kentucky lately to share his success stories with the drug Vivitrol.
In fact, he’s inspired a fair bit of media attention outside his home city. In mid-February, the Cincinnati Enquirer, which serves one of the top 30 metropolitan areas in the United States, did a piece on Tapp and his talks with northern Kentucky legal officials. Additionally, Tapp told the Commonwealth Journal that he did a 30-minute interview with Bloomberg News, a national outlet, a few weeks ago.
“I think it’s an interesting story, in terms of garnering attention outside of Kentucky,” said Tapp.
Apparently, plenty of others agree. Just this week, Tapp went back north to continue spreading the good news about Vivitrol, which is designed to help wean illegal drug abusers off their addiction.
The names of other drugs that are used for the same purpose may be more well-known, if as much for the controversy surrounding them as the drugs themselves. Try to start a Methadone clinic in a community, and there will likely be a public backlash — something Somerset has itself experienced. Vivitrol, however, is something else altogether, according to Tapp.
“It just differs so much from Suboxone and Methadone,” he said. “... It can’t get you high. You don’t have to worry about addicts breaking into the clinic and stealing Vivitrol because you don’t have to worry about those who would regularly abuse drugs (like Suboxone or Methadone).
“That’s a big distinction,” he added, “and why it’s so interesting as a possibility to use in the criminal justice system.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (www.drugabuse.gov), Vivitrol was approved in 2006, initially to treat alcohol addiction but also approved eventually to treat opioid dependence in 2010. Opioids are medications used to relieve pain, including any prescription medications, but also including illegal drugs like Heroin.
Tapp said that approximately 15 people to come through his court have been recommended for Vivitrol. According to the Enquirer, that started in September of 2014 with Lincoln County’s Deedra Shipp, a defendant the Cincinnati paper profiled in their story about Tapp.
“We started last spring, but I don’t believe the first patient received their first injection until September,” said Tapp. “It took a long time. We tried to look pretty carefully to find a doctor (everyone) felt comfortable with. It was rough going at first, trying to get everything we need in place.”
The number of Vivitrol patients has increased with further proof of its effectiveness. Tapp said that there were “about eight or nine” patients to receive Vivitrol treatments this past month. Moreover, “as of a few weeks ago,” seven patients had “no violations whatsoever” following their beginning treatment, which Tapp called “pretty remarkable” given the severity of their addiction.
“The injection (takes place) every 28 days,” said Tapp. “That time period keeps (patients) from getting high and reduces cravings.”
Recommended course of treatment is about a year, said Tapp. “But I know from talking to people who have been on Vivitrol, some can quit much sooner and maintain sobriety, while some have to be on Vivitrol longer than a year,” he added. “That’s really a decision between them and their doctor.”
Tapp noted that the key to treating a defendant with an addiction is their own attitude.
“A huge percentage of our cases (in Circuit Court) involve drug addicts or users,” said Tapp. “... With an addict, you’re looking for some meaningful willingness on their part to seek intervention. It could be drug court. It could be Vivitrol.
“If we have an opiate addict who is interested in Vivitrol and comes in and asks for Vivitrol, we recommend (talking to) their physician and their lawyer,” said Tapp. “We don’t order them to take it, because it’s a medical decision. They have to decide if it’s a good fit.
“I do order them to attend counseling and keep appointments with their doctor,” he continued. “It’s fine if they decide (about Vivitrol), ‘It’s not right for me,’ but they have to let us know so we know what’s going on with them.”
The effect for the legal system and the taxpayer is potentially lessening the burden on an already strained prison system.
“We don’t want to send people to jail simply because they’re using drugs,” said Tapp. “It’s all the things that go along with it that are problems: dealing, addiction, violence. If we can deal with the addiction correctly, maybe we can keep from incarcerating huge numbers of people.”
Tapp said Vivitrol administration can be obtained for patients through the drug court or the SMART (Supervision Motivation Accountability Responsibility and Treatment) program, which Tapp touted as “amazing” and one of only six such programs in Kentucky.
“It’s been a really effective program,” he said.
Tapp’s talks in northern Kentucky are spurred by hope from officials in that area that Vivitrol can be effective in curbing that area’s high drug problem — the Enquirer article termed the area as being “entrenched in the nationwide heroin epidemic.”
Tapp says it didn’t come as a surprise to him that his own court’s success with Vivitrol would inspire others to consider following that lead.
“Given the huge number of overdose deaths and rising opiate addiction ... everybody is desperate to find some effective method of lowering those numbers,” said Tapp. “Some of the traditional strategies employed over the last few years obviously aren’t working very well. We’re all understandably interested in lowering the number of opiate deaths, opiate-addicted babies, as well, as the number of people in the criminal justice system because of their opiate addiction.”