WESTPORT — In the height of the crack epidemic, Peter McGuinness worked as a young lawyer in Bridgeport defending people accused of possession and sale of crack cocaine. Today, in his Fairfield law office, McGuinness has seen a similar drug epidemic on the rise, this time with opiates.

“What I’ve seen in the last five years is a real increase in opiate use and abuse. A lot of that starts very innocently. It could start with somebody who had a bad injury, or a kid in high school playing football who breaks his arm or hurts his knee and is given opiates and the next thing you know he’s abusing them,” McGuinness, 60, said.

What makes the crack and opioid epidemics different, however, is the degree to which the crack epidemic was divided along socioeconomic lines whereas opiate addiction impacts people of all classes, McGuinness said.

Crack was cheaper and primarily impacted the indigent — the poor, many of whom were minorities, and was much more addicting than cocaine, which was made up of the same component parts as crack but was more prevalent in affluent communities and whose possession did not mandate the same harsh sentences as crack.

“In opiates, I think it crosses all lines and you’re seeing people coming from very wealthy families having the same problem as somebody who’s coming from a poor family,” McGuinness said. In his practice, McGuinness works to help people using opiates, and their families, get through the legal process and connect with services to cope with the illness.

Inspired by his father, John J. McGuinness, a Bridgeport city attorney and prominent member of the Democratic party in the 1960s and 1970s who represented Black Rock in the state legislature and later served as a judge on the Connecticut State Superior Court, Peter McGuinness entered law with the goal of helping people.

A graduate of the University of Bridgeport Law School, now Quinnipiac University Law School, McGuinness lived in Fairfield for 15 years to raise his two daughters who went through the Fairfield Public Schools, but returned to his native Black Rock in 2007.

The prevalence of cases involving opiates and other instances of drug and alcohol abuse in McGuinness’ work is surprising, considering he primarily covers family law cases an no longer as many cases directly related to the sale and possession of drugs and alcohol.

McGuinness entered family law because at the Bridgeport law firm where he began his career no one practiced divorce law so he doing divorce cases because it was good business and later expanded to a variety of other family-law topics, such as child custody and visitation and child support.

When McGuinness opened his office in Fairfield about 20 years ago, he continued with a focus on family law but noticed even if people weren’t arrested for crimes involving drugs and alcohol, substance and drug abuse were embedded within many of his cases. For example, in a divorce or child custody case a person’s spouse may be a heavy drinker or suspected of drug use, McGuinness said.

Alcohol and drug addiction are diseases and more people need to identify them as such, McGuinness said. “There’s a chemical reaction to this and they cannot say no, they can’t stop, but there are ways they can stop and all you can do is guide them there, encourage them, have family members encourage them. But in the end, it’s going to be up to the individual,” McGuinness said.

McGuinness said he’s seen many clients overcome drug or alcohol addiction, although it can take several relapses to reach sobriety, some people don’t recover.

“Sometimes the family has to realize this person may not get better and the only thing the family can do is figure out how they get better and how they go forward,” McGuinness said of situations in which individuals don’t recover.

Despite the challenges of defending people struck by alcohol and drug addiction and sometimes accused of crimes, McGuinness said he’s comfortable in the position of a defense attorney.

“I was never going to be a prosecutor. I like to defend people against the state and make sure they’re doing their job, and they usually are. I wanted to be the person who had the client who came in with the problem and help them,” McGuinness said.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1