The state’s devastating opioid epidemic is forcing the Trial Court to bar people from bringing fentanyl and carfentanil into Massachusetts courthouses even for evidentiary purposes, with some exceptions.
The ban on fentanyl and carfentanil, synthetic opioids that are 50 and 5,000 times more potent than heroin, respectively, takes effect Monday, according to Trial Court advisory.
The advisory notes that even small amounts of fentanyl can “induce respiratory depression, arrest, and possibly death.”
“Fentanyl and carfentanil are extremely potent and toxic opioids,” Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey and Administrator Jonathan S. Williams wrote in a memo to staff dated Jan. 2. “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.”
The ban includes “substances that have been collected as evidence and which would otherwise be entered in evidence at a hearing or trial,” the advisory said.
Lawyers who wish to present the appearance of a substance containing fentanyl or carfentanil as evidence must do so through alternative methods such as photographs, video, witness testimony, or an agreement by both sides, known as a stipulation, not to dispute the makeup of a substance.
But the ban is not absolute.
People with a valid prescription for medication containing fentanyl and a medical need to use it while court is open will be able to bring it in, and court staff “will take precautions to avoid contact and exposure,” the advisory said.
And parties can still bring fentanyl or carfentanil into the courthouse if a judge determines that the physical presence of the opioid is necessary for prosecutors to prove their case or to protect a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
In such cases, the advisory said, “the substances shall be packaged and handled in the manner approved by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); shall be handled while in the courthouse — including presentation of the substances in a courtroom — only by individuals who have been trained to handle fentanyl and carfentanil.”
Jurors will not be able to handle the substances, and they will not be accepted for safe keeping by a clerk of the court. Rather, the drugs will have to be turned over to the appropriate law enforcement agency after the courtroom presentation, according to the new rules.
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