A Long Island father blames the judicial system for his son's fatal heroin overdose, claiming a program that allowed his son to avoid jail time by requiring him to abstain from methadone, a synthetic opioid commonly used by recovering addicts, drove him back to the drug.
Rudolf Lepolszki said his son, Robert, was just starting to seem like himself again. After years of heroin addiction, he was in a methadone treatment program and holding down a job as a salesman.
But a drug arrest from before 28-year-old Robert Lepolszki got clean would come back to haunt him.
The recovering addict landed in Nassau County’s Felony Treatment Court, a program that allows defendants to avoid jail and clear their criminal records if they stay out of trouble.
To be eligible, Judge Frank Gulotta, Jr., said Robert Lepolszki would have to give up methadone, the drug he'd credited with curbing his cravings and helping him stay off heroin.
Six months after entering the program, Lepolszki died from a heroin overdose.
"The judicial system failed him," his father said. "If he was still on the methadone, he would have made it without the drugs.”
Gulotta declined to answer questions about the Lepolszki case, but in a written statement to the I-Team (see full statement below), he defended his policy of denying addicts before his court access to methadone and to suboxone, another medication used to treat opioid addiction.
“They are crutches – they are substitutes for drugs and drug cravings without enabling the participant to actually rid him or herself of the addiction,” Gulotta wrote. “It must be remembered, the purpose of this program is to rid the participant of all addictions.”
Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president of Long Island’s Family and Children’s Association, which runs two drug treatment clinics, said the heroin addiction crisis is too dire to deny addicts a tool that has the potential to save their lives.
“Young people are dying left and right because of substance abuse," Reynolds said. “If we have an intervention that could potentially help them, then we should be using it.”
Addiction counselors who have worked with methadone and suboxone for years say the medications are widely accepted and potentially effective treatments for heroin addiction.
Lawyers who previously defended Robert Lepolzski say Gulotta's effective ban on methadone raises questions about whether drug addicts on Long Island are being denied due process.
If an addict is arrested and enters the court system in Nassau County, it is likely that he or she will not be allowed to use methadone or other treatment drugs.
“They don’t have that policy in Queens. They don’t have that policy in Brooklyn. So why do they have that policy in Nassau?” said Jason Russo, who represented Robert Lepolzski before he overdosed. “The policy of the Nassau County drug court failed Robert."
New York does not track the various policies of drug court judges when it comes to methadone and similar treatments, but Valerie Raine, director of the state’s drug court, said it is entirely appropriate for each county judge to apply his or her discretion on what addiction treatment drugs to allow.
She said despite the known benefits of methadone and suboxone, there are also pitfalls, including addicts abusing or illegally re-selling the medications.
"People are beginning to understand the nuances of medication-assisted treatment but they also continue to see a lot of abuse of these drugs," she said. "It's a huge problem."
In his statement, Gulotta said in rare cases he has allowed addicts to continue taking suboxone if a doctor certifies “it would be dangerous to that person’s health or any unborn fetus’ health to terminate that usage.” But Gulotta was clear, he feels it is better addicts have "abstinence" while they are in a structured environment.
He also raised questions about whether methadone alters a defendant's state of mind. Before entering the drug court program, a defendant must plead guilty to a felony.
“I have serious doubts that someone on methadone or suboxone can knowingly and intelligently enter such a plea,” Gulotta said.
Dana Grossblatt, president of the Nassau Criminal Courts Bar Association, said she is pushing for the state legislature to intervene and adopt one methadone policy for all counties.
“When you have a statute that is applied differently literally 3 miles apart, that means the legislature has to look in and look at it and reevaluate and make a determination we need to make this uniform,” Grossblatt said.