Involuntary Commitments For Addicts Being Considered By More States

By Kelly Burch 03/16/17

A New Hampshire bill is calling for the involuntary commitment of opioid addicts who might be a threat to themselves.

A hearing about involuntary commitment.
During a recent hearing, families of overdose victims spoke out in favor of involuntary commitment. Photo via YouTube

New Hampshire and Washington are both considering bills that would allow for the involuntary commitment of addicts—joining a growing number of states that are turning to involuntary commitments to force people into treatment. 

According to the Partnership for Drug Free Kids, 37 states and Washington, D.C. allow people who are addicted to be involuntarily committed to treatment. However, the bar for involuntary commitment remains high and varies from state to state. In general, it must be proven that a person has become a danger to themselves or others. 

The New Hampshire bill specifically targets opioid addiction, calling for involuntarily commitment when a person has taken "opioid substances" that changes their behavior in such a way that suggests they "lack the capacity to care for his or her own welfare," and that the person might die or seriously harm themselves if they are not committed.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, who introduced the bill, understands that the issue is complicated, especially in the Granite State where voters tend to prefer a hands-off approach from government. 

“We are clearly a ‘live free or die’ state and we believe in individual responsibility,” said Bradley. “But responsibility falls on [everyone] who sees someone who is addicted to substances, which is an illness, and needs help. And sometimes people don’t want to seek help and then it becomes our responsibility to help those people. We ought to be able to have this tool to help people who are reluctant to seek out help. I don’t think there is any disagreement about that.”

The New Hampshire bill is rooted in the definition of mental illness, which according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, includes substance abuse and addiction.

In Washington, the bill would expand the current involuntary commitment legislation to include people who are “gravely disabled” by addiction. The bill says that a person could be hospitalized if they’ve been arrested three times in a year for issues related to substance abuse, if they have three or more visible track marks, or if they’ve already been hospitalized related to substance abuse. 

However, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Steve O’Ban, thinks it will likely be killed because of budget restraints. However, he hopes the bill will at least start a discussion about addiction treatment. 

Meanwhile, families of addicts are hoping for more support to help their loved ones, even if they’re not yet ready for help. 

“We don’t have time to wait,” said Jack Carter, whose son died of an opioid overdose. “There’s no reason for more families to bury their kids. These are our children. Something has to get done. President [Donald] Trump called New Hampshire ground zero for the opioid crisis. It’s time to step up and do something for these families, for us, for the kids of our future.”

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