The methadone program inside the Bernalillo County jail will continue through this summer while university experts analyze its effectiveness.
Nevertheless, county commissioners posed tough questions Tuesday that suggest some skepticism about continuing it permanently.
“It’s costing an awful lot of taxpayer money,” Commissioner Art De La Cruz said. “If there’s no change in behavior, then what’s the point?”
He and other commissioners said they want good data on recidivism and other factors before making a final decision.
The commission voted 4-0 in favor of leaving the program in place through June 30. The county plans to hire the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions to analyze the methadone program’s costs, benefits, recidivism rates among participants and other data.
The program has been the subject of much debate over the last few months. Jail Chief Ramon Rustin initially planned to cut the program last year, triggering an outcry from supporters.
The county provides methadone to inmates who were taking it before they ended up in jail. The drug is aimed at reducing the cravings of people addicted to heroin or other opiates, Rustin said.
He told commissioners that he has an open mind about whether or how to continue the program, which costs $37,500 a month.
But as a corrections expert, he said, his initial review indicated that “the return on our investment didn’t seem to be there.”
Methadone treatment might be effective outside a jail setting, he said, but “with my population, it’s different. … Even the methadone doesn’t seem to work with them to change their behavior.”
Furthermore, he said, the state Corrections Department doesn’t offer a methadone program like Bernalillo County’s, causing friction when inmates or prisoners move between jurisdictions.
But the commission on Tuesday also heard from doctors who offered a much more positive assessment of the program.
Dr. William Wiese, senior fellow at UNM’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy, said there’s been a fair amount of research on methadone maintenance in jails and prisons.
“These studies are quite remarkable in that they document a positive impact on the individual health of people in these programs,” he said.
If the Bernalillo County jail is an exception, the UNM study ought to be used to find out why, he said.
Harris Silver, a doctor and drug policy analyst, estimated there would be an extra 20 to 30 drug overdose deaths in Bernalillo County each year if the program were discontinued. There are about 170 such deaths a year now, he said.
Those figures are for accidental deaths, not suicide, he said.