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INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Indiana needs to take act to avoid creating a “justice by geography” criminal court system, the chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court tells I-Team 8 in an exclusive interview.

The interview follows an extraordinary dissenting opinion issued in December by Chief Justice Loretta Rush in the case of Joseph Kellams.

The Indiana Supreme Court declined to shorten the 16-year maximum sentence Kellams received in a drug-related case.

Kellams’ journey to addiction began with a dirt bike accident as a teenager. What followed was a prescription for painkillers that left him hooked and turning to meth when the prescription ran out.

Chief Justice Rush wrote his case was “a rare and exceptional one, but one that also shows how counties across Indiana treat addiction differently.”

Rush sat down for an exclusive interview with I-Team 8 to discuss her opinion.

She wrote in the opinion: “This case highlights the disparity among Indiana counties in respect to meaningful sentencing alternatives for those suffering from substance disorder.”

I-Team 8 asked Rush to expand on that.

“We have 148 problem-solving courts in different counties,” Rush told I-Team 8. “But we have whole areas that don’t have them and so what I don’t want to see is justice by geography. If you live in a county that has a problem-solving court, you are able to work the program with a lot of oversight and accountability through meetings and drug testing, keep your job, stay with your family, and contribute to your community. If we feel that doesn’t, it could be 5, 10, 15 years in jail.”

The geography includes 58 counties that have one designated drug court. Kellams was arrested in Orange County, one of 34 Indiana counties that don’t have a designated drug court. The chief justice wants those numbers to change. 

“You have to have accountability for the criminal behavior that’s there. Methamphetamine is the No. 1 drug we are seeing right now in courts in Indiana and it is ravaging families, communities.” Rush told I-Team 8. “Everybody knows somebody or a family member or somebody that started off with a sports injury in high school. I just met with the state champion baseball team. You start with a sports injury prescribed medication. That’s done and then you get addicted and you turn to other drugs.” 

In the December opinion, which was also signed by Justice Christopher Goff, Rush also wrote, “It is no secret that addiction often leads individuals to engage in criminal behavior. As a result, the criminal justice system has become the largest referral source for substance use disorder treatment aside from self-referral.”

Rush says drug use and addiction have led to the state’s highest incarceration rate and one of the highest rates of foster care in the country.

Using drug courts as alternatives does not mean eliminating punishment for those who commit drug-related crimes.

“At the same time, there is no question that methamphetamine exacts a devastating toll on individuals, families, and our communities,” Rush wrote. “And Kellams exacerbated that toll by choosing to deal methamphetamine. This serious offense requires a commensurate sentence.”

I-Team 8 noted that there are the people who have become addicts, there are innocent victims, there are the people who live next door to the drug dealers, there are families with sons or daughters who became addicts because of this disparity. I-Team 8 asked the chief justice what the state’s highest court says to those people.

“Our job is too not overlook the crime. There has to be consequences in regard to the criminal behavior and there is going to be just punishments given to the criminal behavior,” Rush said. “You have a person that is an addict. You treat addiction as a disease — it is a treatable disease — and punish the criminal behavior. That is a tough balance sometimes but there are victims, you know, there are a lot of victims. Somebody got dealt that first methamphetamine. We have to deal with the dealers.”

In 2018, Rush was named co-chair of the National Judicial Opioid Task Force. The task force addressed how the judicial system affects change.

One of the issues in Indiana’s “justice by geography” is funding, which is controlled by the Indiana General Assembly. Will state lawmakers have to bring the change?

“I think it will have to be and also, for smaller communities, you are going to see counties band together because they might not have the resources to have one, so a big push for me with the General Assembly this year is to fund the drug courts instead of funding the tail end, which is long periods of incarceration,” Rush said. “Doing the front end, we have about 4,000 participants in problem-solving courts a year and that is growing and that is 4,000 lives saved.”

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Kicking addiction is a hard fight many Hoosiers are battling. 

But on Wednesday, lawmakers sent a strong message to try to help them. 

Indiana legislators advanced a measure that would open three addiction recovery centers statewide. The bill now heads to the House floor for its first full vote.

Under that bill, one of those centers would each be placed in Indiana’s central, northern and southern regions. 

“I just felt this hopelessness and emptiness,” Sean McDonough, a recovering addict, said Wednesday.

The 40-year-old spent thousands of dollars to get his cocaine, booze and marijuana fix after he lost his Wall Street job in 2009. For almost a decade, he was addicted. 

“For me, it was more like a calming effect. I kind of turned to it to have an escape from reality,” McDonough said.

Reality caught up with him in 2017. He decided to get clean. Now, he helps other people struggling with addiction.

That’s why he and several others champion an addiction recovery center bill. It would give Hoosiers a central place to go for help with beating addictions to things like meth, opioids, alcohol or cocaine.  That access is not easy to get today.

“Even once you get plugged into addictions treatment, it’s still very fragmented,” said Brandon George, director of Indiana Addictions Issues Coalition. “You might have to go to five different agencies to receive the five types of services you need.”

State Sen. Jim Merritt said, if approved, the state would give each center $1 million in start-up money.

“I have found that we have gotten ourselves into a situation where it’s not only an opioid epidemic, it’s an addiction epidemic,” said the Republican from Indianapolis. “You’re talking about different types of addiction, from tobacco to alcohol, to opioids and to meth.” 

The idea could mean a new and better life for people like Michael Oppelt. He relapsed back into alcohol nine months ago after more than 25 years in recovery. 

“There’s good people dying every day because they don’t have access to services,” Oppelt said. “It’s life and death.”

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Jack Smith says Kratom saved his life.

“After I got to clean about three and a half years ago, a buddy of mine from Indonesia called me and said, “Jack you have to try this. I know how depressed you are,”” Smith described. “So he sent it to me, and I literally cried the first time I tried it. It was the first time I felt like the Jack I knew years ago before I started the pills.” 

Kratom is already illegal in a handful of states and cities throughout the United States, and now, the Ohio Board of Pharmacy is recommending the same thing. Smith says he believes the pharmaceutical industry lobby is pushing for it.

“If you ask me, it’s going to affect so much of pharmaceutical sales. That’s just my heart, when you affect somebody’s income… Suboxone, the pain pills, opiates… whatever it is. I get it but to come in and say, “we’re making this a schedule one drug.”

Smith was a NASCAR driver. In 2007 he broke his neck. He was put on pain pills and got addicted.

“I lost my contract. I was making $2.5 million a year, and I lost my contract because of my opiate problem,” said Smith.

He also says he has seen Kratom save the lives of thousands of other people.

“I had people coming in fully withdrawing off of heroin, as sick as can be. I know how that feels. I don’t wish that on anyone in the world. That’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life. I would make them a drink. It would stop their withdrawals in 15 minutes. I’ve had grown man cry…. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.”

That kind of transformation doesn’t happen in the shop anymore. In the fall of 2018, Smith’s shop, Life of Kratom, was shut down for violations. He was giving out what the state of Ohio says is medical advice by telling people how to use Kratom powder and the ailments he says it can help treat.

He’s very careful with how he talks about the product now.

“It’s just a leaf from Indonesia and Thailand. It’s been around for thousands of years. It’s really just catching on in the last five years or so here in the United States. I have to be careful; I’m not a physician, so I can’t tell you any claims,” Smith said when asked to describe the product.

“My biggest thing that I fight right now is agriculture and pharmaceuticals, because when I have people come in into the store and they ask, “what is Kratom?” or “how do I take it?,”  I’m trying to live by all the rules and make everyone happier, and I can’t tell them,” Smith explained.

Smith says people can’t OD or die from Kratom, but he says if they take too much, they can get dizzy and vomit.

“It’s a shame that I can’t tell people that,” he said.

However, the Ohio Board of Pharmacy says Kratom is listed as the cause of death for six people in 2016 and 2017 and has recommended it be added to the list of Schedule 1 drugs.

Smith disputes that claim but does say the industry could benefit from regulations.

“You can’t die from this stuff. Every case they’ve had from someone passing away, some other drug was in it… opiates, fentanyl, Xanax… there was always something in there. It was never just Kratom,” he said. “So I tell people, to me [the Ohio Board of Pharmacy] is using it as a scare tactic. And I think, in the next year, you see all the studies coming out, they’ll find out the truth about it.”

“If there’s regulations on it, I think there needs to be regulations on testing and making sure the stores are legit,” Smith added. “I’m probably going to get a lot of flack over this, but I don’t think it needs to be head shops and stuff like that.”

People use Kratom for a variety of reasons and to holistically treat ailments. Chronic pain, anxiety, lethargy, and insomnia are just a few examples.

“What really amazes me is 40 percent of my business is 60 and over,” Smith said. “It’s amazing how many elderly people are coming here and using more holistic ways of managing… whether it’s pain… whatever it is.”

Smith has a message for those who think Kratom should be made illegal: “I tell pharmaceutical… I tell anybody… the politicians… come sit in my store. I welcome you. Come sit in my store for a day, three days, and just listen to the stories. I’m not a physician, I will tell you that, but what I can tell you is it’s amazing the amount of people that come in here and how it’s changed their lives.”