As the death toll from the opioid crisis rises, some legislators have promoted involuntary commitment as a way to deal with the problem.
In Pennsylvania, the law only allows involuntary commitment for someone who has a severe mental illness.
The standards for such a commitment are strict, said Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
A person can be admitted for emergency treatment for up to five days if considered a danger to oneself or others.
To be considered a danger to other people, a person must have physically harmed or tried to harm someone else within the past 30 days and there must be a reasonable probability he or she will try to harm again. Other grounds for commitment include attempted suicide with a likelihood of a reoccurrence, substantial self-mutilation or an inability to care for oneself. A physician must certify the person’s condition in writing before a warrant is issued.
“It’s a high standard,” Rose said.
Some state legislators have tried to expand the law to allow people to petition the courts to commit their family members who are addicted to drugs.
State Sen. John Yudichak. D-14, Plymouth Twp., was among the sponsors of Senate Bill 391, which would have expanded involuntary commitment to people addicted to alcohol and/or drugs.
“Last year we saw a record number of opioid overdoses in Luzerne County and its impact on families is devastating. As a legislator, I’ve supported many bills to help fight the opioid epidemic, and Senate Bill 391 would give family members another tool to use to help save their loved one’s life,” he wrote in a statement.
The last action on the bill was a referral to the Senate Judiciary committee in February 2017.
The ACLU opposes expanding involuntary commitment to people addicted to drugs or alcohol.
There aren’t enough drug treatment facilities in the state for people who do want treatment, and evidence shows that people who are forced into treatment are more likely to relapse, Rose said.
“We incarcerate people whose main crimes are that they’re drug addicts. But it’s kind of unfair when they can’t access affordable, effective treatment in first instance,” she said.
The state should be doing more to provide enough affordable treatment for people who want it, Rose said. When people are jailed because they can’t find treatment they can afford, it becomes a civil liberties issue.
“It’s certainly understandable that people want to have a way to force their loved ones into treatment. I think advocating for increased voluntary access to treatment would be far more effective in helping people with substance use disorders,” she said.
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