State bans opioids from courtrooms over exposure fears


Massachusetts plans to ban some powerful opioids from courtrooms, because state court officials are worried people could be sickened by the drugs.

Under a policy that goes into effect on Jan. 8, fentanyl and carfentanil will be allowed into state courthouses only under certain circumstances. That means lawyers wanting to present the drugs as evidence during a hearing or trial must use photographs, video or witness testimony.

"We have worked to try to find a way to balance the risks posed by the presence of fentanyl and carfentanil into the courthouse environment, the interests of the parties in the admissions of such substances and the rights of the criminal defendants," Massachusetts Trial Court officials said in a memo sent to judges, clerks, and other court staff this week.

Massachusetts is thought to be the first state to impose such a ban, which some medical experts have said is an unnecessary overreaction.

The policy notes that "about two to three milligrams of fentanyl — the equivalent of five to seven grains of table salt — can induce respiratory depression, arrest and possibly death."

Some law enforcement officers have reported falling ill after routine exposure to the drug, like when merely brushing the substance off a uniform, but experts have said that's not medically possible. While the potent drugs are dangerous if they're inhaled or find another way into the bloodstream, toxicologists say even accidental skin exposure shouldn't make someone sick. They say properly packaged drugs would pose no danger in a courtroom.

David Labahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said last month that some individual courthouses have banned opioids like fentanyl, but said he's unaware of any similar statewide actions.

Massachusetts' policy says the drugs may be entered as evidence if a judge determines it's necessary for the state to prove its case or "to protect a defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial." People with a prescription for a medication containing fentanyl will also be able to bring their medication into a courthouse.

Furthermore, all controlled-substances that lawyers plan to introduce as evidence at won't be allowed into a courthouse unless it has been "chemically analyzed" and found to not contain fentanyl and carfentanil, the policy says. The trial court says that's "because fentanyl and carfentanil take many different forms and appear as common street-level controlled substances."

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Follow Alanna Durkin Richer @aedurkinricher . Read more of her work here .


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