An East Tennessee judge is leading a new regional program to combat the ongoing opioid crisis.
The Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative (RJOI) will bring leaders together across seven states including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina to explore tactics to fight the epidemic.
“These states make up an incredible percentage of where the problem is the greatest in the nation,” said Fourth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Duane Slone.
Slone is chairing the seven-state initiative, which he said is the first program of its kind nationwide.
The RJOI originated from the Regional Judicial Opioid Summit in August 2016, when leaders first decided to establish a regional framework for all players in the criminal justice system -- from law enforcement to judges and lawmakers – that also extended to medical experts and child welfare representatives.
Slone said one of the initiative’s first priorities includes tracking and sharing drug-related data between states.
"For example, the Kentucky database -- the Controlled Substance Monitoring Database in Kentucky,” he said. “Tennessee is not permitted to access that database, and vice versa."
He said data sharing would allow states to learn more about which medications are being over-prescribed. Some of those adjustments may first require legislative changes, however.
"We can also better identify the sources where hotspots might be for heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil,” Slone added.
He also stressed the need to train judges across all courts to treat addiction as a disease requiring treatment.
"We want to make sure we're training up all judges. This is far beyond specialty courts -- that's very important for us to understand," he said. “Specialty courts like drug recovery courts do not have the capacity to address this alone. We need all hands on deck.”
The opioid crisis is personal for Judge Slone. His adopted son was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
As the program gets underway, he says there's one driving force behind his passion for solving the crisis:
"No matter who we’re talking about, whether it’s a homeless person suffering from addiction, we’re all Gods’s children,” he said. “Everyone's my neighbor. And when you see people, it's just -- this is another person."
The chief justices of six state Supreme Courts signed the charter to support the RJOI between mid-March and early April. On Friday, North Carolina became the seventh state to agree to join.