Some States Pass Involuntary Commitment Laws for Addiction Treatment, but Face Challenges

What do you do if someone you love is abusing drugs or alcohol and refuses to seek treatment? This was the situation Sharon Blair (pictured, far left) found herself in when she spent 13 years trying to get her daughter, Jennifer Reynolds (pictured, far right), treatment for prescription medication abuse. Unfortunately, Blair was not able to get her daughter the help she needed, and Reynolds died from a drug overdose in 2009. jennifer reynolds and sharon blair

Blair lives in Florida, where a person who is abusing drugs or alcohol may be involuntarily committed to a detox program. Florida’s involuntary commitment law for addiction treatment requires that a relative or loved file a petition, pay a fee, and demonstrate the addict’s need for treatment. After meeting all of these requirements, the court may only order involuntary commitment for a maximum period of 72 hours.

Blair believes that Florida’s law is inadequate because it does not allow the sort of long-term treatment that may be necessary to treat addiction. She has been lobbying for the state to enact “Jennifer’s Law,” which would give families better tools to get treatment for their loved ones who are unwilling to seek treatment themselves. Other states permit much longer periods of involuntary commitment, such as Massachusetts, which permits involuntary commitment for a period of up to 90 days.

Counterpoint to Involuntary Treatment

Not everyone believes that forced treatment laws for addiction are a good idea. Some people believe that forcing adults to seek addiction treatment against their will violates their civil rights. Others, like Ohio-based psychiatrist Dr. Art Thalassinos, believe that involuntary treatment may not work. According to Dr. Thalassinos, “If you don’t understand what you’re doing to yourself or to your loved ones, you will end up doing the same thing once you’re out.”

Many states have enacted laws allowing courts to require involuntary addiction treatment, even though forced treatment laws are controversial. Some states have included procedures to protect the civil rights of people who are involuntarily committed, such as requiring a showing that the individual is a serious danger to him or herself. Other states only require a showing that the individual’s decision-making is impaired or that the individual has lost control of him or herself.

Sometimes the very procedures that states use to protect the civil rights of people who are involuntarily committed can prevent families from taking advantage of those laws. First, there are several steps family members must take in order for a court to require involuntary treatment. Family members must show a court that their loved one needs treatment and must satisfy the standard set by the state where they live. Another reason that family members may not take advantage of involuntary commitment laws is due to cost. Family members may have to pay a filing fee just to have a court hear their petition for involuntary commitment. In some states, like Ohio, the family seeking involuntary commitment may even have to pay the cost of the treatment. These costs can discourage families from taking advantage of the very laws that have been passed to help them get treatment for their loved ones suffering from addictions.

These are some of the challenges that many states face when trying to help people like Sharon Blair get treatment for their loved ones with addictions, who are unwilling to seek that help on their own.