Can You Be Committed for Having 3 or More Track Marks?

By Kelly Burch 07/10/17

Recovery experts criticize the use of civil commitment for infringing on peoples' rights and not providing treatment.

police officer arresting a citizen.

The old recovery adage states that people have to hit rock bottom before they become ready to seek help. But with the opioid epidemic killing people at alarming rates, "rock bottom" too often means another body in the morgue. That’s why more states are using civil commitment—locking people up—in order to protect them from their own addictions. 

Civil commitments have traditionally been used to protect people with mental health issues who may be a danger to themselves or others. Under civil commitment laws, people who are dangerous to themselves can be held in a jail or hospital until they are no longer a danger. The details of the laws vary widely between states. 

However, across the country, desperate loved ones are turning to civil commitments to try to save the lives of people addicted to opioids—and in many cases, the legal system is going along with the process, according to a report in the Herald-Dispatch

Massachusetts leads the country in using civil commitments to address drug addiction. In the state, civil commitment petitions are usually approved within the hour when judges are in session. Republican Governor Charlie Baker is pushing for legislation that would make the process even simpler, allowing emergency room physicians to hold patients for up to three days when they fear that the patient might use drugs again. 

A similar measure in Kentucky failed to pass last year. However, three states—New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington—are currently considering their own civil commitment laws specifically for people who use opioids.

Pennsylvania’s bill would allow parents to have a doctor examine their adult child and write a treatment plan, which a judge could order through a court mandate. New Hampshire is considering allowing family members to petition the court to have a person with addiction confined in the state mental hospital for treatment.

Washington's bill would add opioid use as a sufficient cause for commitment under current laws. It would allow people to be detained if, within a 12-month period, they have been arrested three or more times for drug-related crimes; have been hospitalized for drug use; or have three or more visible track marks indicating intravenous heroin use.

While everyone acknowledges a need for treatment, recovery advocates question the ethics of holding people against their will. In addition to infringing on people’s rights, civil commitments often detain individuals without giving them access to treatment that would help facilitate long-term sobriety. 

"People who use substances and have addictions still have civil rights," said Dr. Alex Walley, director of an addiction medicine fellowship at Boston Medical Center. "The real question is whether effective treatment is available, which in the case of opioids, is going to be medication. And it's not OK to limit it to just one medicine.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.