Buffalo is now home to a first-in-the-nation ‘opiate court’. The announcement made this morning at a news conference led by the chief judge of Buffalo City Court, Thomas Amodeo.

“We at Buffalo City Court will help our community make a difference for the families that are in need,” said Amodeo.

A $300,000 grant from the US Justice Department help fund staff and training to establish the opiate court as a pilot program.

The court will attempt to address another sad reality of the region’s opiate epidemic. Each month at city court, two to three pending cases are closed with a death certificate. What’s happening is that defendants, while awaiting trial are continuing to use opiates, risking overdose and death.

The goal is to get these people into treatment while their criminal case is suspended. The program is limited to people arrested in Buffalo for non-violent crimes. Potential participants are identified in the city court lock-up.

“We screen people at 5:30 in the morning in the holding center downstairs where they’re held pending arraignment,” says Amodeo.

The screen process is a questionnaire. This is standard procedure for every defendant being held, but three questions have been added:

-Do you have a history of using heroin or opiates?

-Have you ever overdosed on an opiate?

-When was the last time you used an opiate?

Any indication of opiate use with any of this three questions lands that defendant in front of Opiate Court Judge Craig Hannah.

"We’re not going to suspend the criminal charges indefinitely. If you committed a crime, the crime is going to be accounted for. There’s definite going to be accountability,” said Hannah.

But while the criminal case is indefinitely suspended, the defendant is offered drug treatment.

Earlier his month, the opiate court was quietly reviewing cases in advance of today’s formal announcement. A total of 42 defendants appeared in opiate court. Of them, 40 were placed in an in-patient treatment facility. The other two are receiving out-patient help.

As long as a defendant maintains their treatment program and passes drug testing, they could get a break on their criminal case.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn says, “We could have the option to dismiss the charges. We could have the option to give a reduced plea. We have multiple options available to us if the person successfully goes through the program.”

The opiate court is funded for three years. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz predicts that other communities challenged by rising opiate abuse will quickly create opiate courts of their own.