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One state forces opioid abusers to get help. Will others follow?

Christine Vestal, on

Published in News & Features

TAMPA, Fla. -- In an opioid epidemic that is killing more than a hundred Americans every day, many families of overdose victims feel helpless when it comes to convincing their loved ones to seek treatment.

Police and other first responders -- who often rescue the same people again and again -- are similarly frustrated about their lack of authority to detain users long enough for their heads to clear so they can consider treatment.

But here in Tampa, police, health care professionals and families have a powerful legal tool not available in many other places: the 1993 Marchman Act. Families and health care professionals can use the state law to "marchman," or involuntarily commit people into substance abuse treatment when they are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Although the statute applies to all jurisdictions in the state, court records show that it has been employed in Tampa and surrounding Hillsborough County far more than anywhere else. Hillsborough County accounts for less than 7 percent of the state's population and more than 40 percent of its Marchman commitments.

Police use the Marchman Act to pick up people without a court order and take them to a designated stabilization and assessment center. Addiction professionals use the law when a patient fails to show up for treatment. And parents and friends use it when they fear a loved one's life is at risk.

Across the country, state lawmakers are grappling with how to give first responders and medical professionals the same kind of legal leeway -- without violating drug users' civil liberties.

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"It's been one of the most hotly debated opioid issues of the past year," said Sherry Green, a consultant and former legal analyst with the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.

Tampa's success with the Marchman Act could be a model.

More than 400 people in Tampa and surrounding Hillsborough County were involuntarily committed into addiction assessment and treatment last year, according to circuit court records. More than two-thirds completed their court-ordered programs.

That's a success rate that substantially exceeds the 50 percent threshold most researchers use in determining whether an addiction treatment is effective, said David Gastfriend, senior research scientist at the Public Health Management Corporation in Philadelphia.


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