Involuntary Commitment Law Taken Advantage of By Those Who Need Drug Treatment

By Britni de la Cretaz 11/01/16

With few treatment beds available, Massachusetts drug users are forced to "misuse" the court system to get the help they need.

Involuntary Commitment Law Taken Advantage of By Those Who Need Drug Treatment

In Massachusetts, more people than ever are seeking drug treatment through the court system, using legislation designed to force unwilling participants to get the help they need. According to a report by WBUR, court data show the annual number of Section 35 commitments has gone up by 40% over the past five years—to about 8,000 across the state.

Section 35 is part of state law that allows a judge to civilly commit someone to substance use treatment if they are deemed a risk to themselves or others. The law was designed so that friends, family members, or doctors could force someone to get treatment, and hopefully save their life in the process.

However, Massachusetts, like many other states, has a dearth of treatment beds. For many people struggling with addiction, the window of time during which they’re willing to get help is small. They are often unwilling to call every detox in the state every two hours for days on end until they get a bed. And, even if they’re lucky enough to get a detox bed on the first try, there’s often a waiting list to get into further treatment, leaving many folks to discharge to the streets and pick up again.

The result of this has been that people are going the route most likely to guarantee they’ll get the help they want—they’re using a law designed to allow for involuntary commitment to treatment to voluntarily seek care. Known among lay people as “sectioning yourself,” the drug user will often have a friend or family member accompany them to court and act as their official petitioner, testifying that their drug use makes them a danger to themselves or others—the “legal standard” for commitment.

But this use of the law is controversial. Patrick Cronin, a drug policy advocate who now helps run a treatment center in Quincy, Massachusetts, told WBUR, “That’s not what Section 35 was created for.” He worries that the misuse of the system is resulting in less access to commitment beds for those who really need them. State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan who in 2014 led a legislative committee to investigate the rise in Section 35 commitments, echoed Cronin’s sentiments, telling WBUR that she was concerned about the “cost of care, the cost of misuse of the system.”

Two years ago, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh closed the bridge to Long Island, a small island in Boston Harbor where over 100 of the city’s treatment beds were located. They’ve yet to be completely replaced. And, while Gov. Charlie Baker passed sweeping opiate reform legislation earlier this year, it didn’t include any funds for new treatment beds. However, the controversial clause involving a 72-hour involuntary commitment for drug users who seek care at the emergency room as a way to force them to seek treatment was removed before the bill passed, amid concerns about civil liberties violations. It was replaced with a voluntary evaluation.

What everyone seems to agree on is that providing more access to treatment beds is the answer to reducing the number of people who "section" themselves. One hundred new beds for civil commitments were recently added, which advocates hope will lessen the backlog in the courthouses. But until more treatment beds are available in the community at-large, it’s unlikely that people will stop using the courts to seek treatment for themselves. And, unfortunately for Massachusetts, that doesn’t seem like a problem that will be ending any time soon.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.