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

Christine Vestal, on

Published in News & Features

Nearly 12 million Americans have an addiction to opioid painkillers and heroin, according to the most recent survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Only 1 in 5 are receiving treatment.

A shortage of treatment capacity is part of the problem, addiction experts say, but denial and refusal to seek treatment is the primary reason. The vast majority of Americans with a drug addiction do not receive treatment because they say they do not need it.

Research also shows that people who are coerced into treatment either through criminal courts or employer or family intervention are just as successful at beating their addictions as those who voluntarily enter treatment.

That's why governors and lawmakers want to find legal methods to push people into treatment in the vulnerable moments after they've been rescued from an overdose and are in contact with police and medical professionals who can help.

At least 33 states have laws that technically allow loved ones and others to involuntarily commit people who put their lives at risk by using drugs, according to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws. But since they can only be implemented with a judge's approval, typically during business hours, commitment laws have been largely ineffective at preventing people who are rescued from an overdose from walking away, using drugs again and overdosing.

Florida has the oldest law authorizing emergency detention for drug and alcohol users without court involvement. Colorado and Minnesota have similar emergency commitment statutes, and a handful of other states have emergency provisions on the books that are seldom used, according to Green.

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"There's a great deal of frustration among first responders who revive or resuscitate individuals and then watch them get up and walk away," said Kentucky state Rep. Kimberly Moser, a Republican.

Under a bill Moser proposed last month along with four other Republican House members, first responders would have the authority to sign a 72-hour noncriminal "detention order," requiring an overdose victim to be transported to a hospital or treatment facility to be held until an addiction assessment is completed and a treatment plan developed.

Moser's bill would complement, but not amend, an existing civil commitment law in Kentucky. Casey's Law has been used successfully by hundreds of families for more than a decade to coerce loved ones with dangerous drug addictions into treatment. That law requires a court proceeding, which can take days or weeks.

In Massachusetts, a similar emergency commitment bill, which Republican Gov. Charlie Baker first proposed in 2015, would allow medical professionals and first responders to detain patients who have been revived from a drug overdose and transport them to a specialized addiction facility for emergency assessment and treatment.


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