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Knox County Opioid Addicts with Criminal Charges to Get Injections to Curb Drug Cravings

Opioid addicts facing criminal charges in Knox County could receive the first doses of a drug to help them stay clean as part of a new pilot program this month.

Officials expect the first injections of Vivitrol to be given as soon as next week to participating inmates who have pending charges for low-level, drug-related crimes as part of the "Shot At Life" drug diversion program. The new approach to fighting the opioid epidemic is being overseen by Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen's office, in cooperation with the Helen Ross McNabb Center, the Knox County Sheriff's Office and the Knoxville Police Department.

"We're trying to use every tool at our disposal," Assistant District Attorney General Sean McDermott said Wednesday. "We want to curb recidivism. If this changes an addict's outlook, and then changes their behavior, then it's a valuable tool for prosecutors."

Vivitrol blocks the brain's ability to feel pleasure from opioids, such as OxyContin or hydrocodone, or alcohol.

The first treatments will be given before the participants' release from jail into an intensive outpatient program administered by Helen Ross McNabb. The program also will include multiple, individual and group sessions with a clinical counselor each week, and monthly Vivitrol injections for one year.

Knox County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Hillary Coward said Wednesday the initial trial doses are expected to be administered at the county detention facility as early as next week.

Qualified candidates must be known opiate users currently in jail for low-level offenses or for violation of probation who have no history of violent offenses, according to the program's parameters. Participants also must have a strong family support structure and a low to moderate mental health history.

"Most importantly, the candidate must truly want to participate in the program and must have a support system outside of the jail that includes an acceptable residential plan," according to the district attorney general's website. "Measures will be taken to ensure that MAT (Medical Assisted Treatment) is only available to criminal defendants who truly want to change their lives."

The program is funded by a $150,000 grant awarded by the Trinity Health Foundation of East Tennessee. Alkermes Plc, the manufacturer of Vivitrol, is donating 360 doses to the program. The medication normally costs $1,100 per dose.

The program can accommodate up to 30 participants. A limited number of people have been chosen, with additional patients to be accepted as the effort moves forward, McDermott said.

Participants who successfully complete the program will be recognized for their achievement and may have their pending charges dismissed, according to Allen's office.

Tennessee ranked 11th in the nation for fatal drug overdoses in 2015, with 1,457 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those deaths, 153 were reported in Knox County, which had the third highest number of fatal overdoses among counties statewide, according to Tennessee Department of Health figures.

According to McDermott, there were 236 suspected overdose deaths in Knox County in 2016.

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