In Pennsylvania, addictions to opioids like heroin have garnered attention recently as overdose deaths have increased.
From 2014 to 2015 the number of drug-related overdose deaths in the state rose 23.4 percent — to a total of 3,383 deaths in 2015, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Data for 2016 hasn’t been released yet, but the outlook is not much better.
In an attempt to curb this epidemic, state legislators from both political parties are looking to institute legislation for addiction treatment.
One bill proposed by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa in February would allow family members of someone struggling with addiction to petition to commit them to a rehabilitation program against their will. Following the approval of a physician and a court hearing, the person would be taken to a treatment facility. Another bill Rep. Matt Baker, the Health Committee chairman, plans to propose would mandate that after being hospitalized for an overdose, a person would then be required to be admitted into treatment.
The American Civil Liberties Union has already raised concerns about Costa’s bill and the possible violation of personal rights — and rightfully so.
Forced admission to a rehabilitation facility for those struggling with a drug addiction, as proposed in both Costa’s and Baker’s bills, is a misguided approach to a pressing issue. Effectively criminalizing people with a disease is not the appropriate avenue to treat those afflicted. The widespread problems created by addiction are undeniable, but we cannot address them at the cost of individual rights.
“The approach raises troubling legal issues,” said Jeffrey Boles, a legal studies professor. “When you are committing someone against his or her will and forcing them essentially on a medical regime to take drugs that the patient may not want to take, that raises concerning constitutional questions: the right to one’s personal liberty, the right to one’s privacy.”
Individual rights can’t be forfeited, even if the intentions of lawmakers and family members may be good. Our current system of voluntary commitment to a rehabilitation facility and subsequent medical regime is more advantageous to those in need of help then any compulsory measure could be.
“You can’t just lock people up because you think it’s a good idea,” said Devin Reaves, a clinical outreach coordinator for Life of Purpose, an organization that focuses on education centered addiction recovery and has given talks about addiction issues on campus.
“The research on compulsory treatment is mixed at best,” Reaves added. “A high percentage of people who overdose do accept help afterwards, and if they want to get people into treatment there are other ways aside from trampling people’s civil rights.”
Costa’s bill states that involuntary commitment can only occur when a physician declares a patient in “imminent danger,” meaning a patient poses a threat to themselves or others.
This classification is problematic because it leaves the fate of patients up to the discretion of individual physicians.
“How can a physician decide whether someone with an addiction is a danger to himself, herself, others?” Boles said. “How does that application play out? What are its parameters?”
Legislation that essentially incarcerates people suffering from addiction also further stigmatizes addiction in our society and makes it less likely for those struggling to voluntarily reach out for help.
A person who experiences an overdose, or sees someone experiencing one, potentially may not go to the hospital to seek help in the moment in an effort to avoid being taken away to a care facility. And because of this hesitation, people may die.
“This is more of the same kind of law-and-order logic applied to treatment, and that’s just not what treatment is,” Reaves said. “You can’t force anybody into treatment. It’s just not the way things work.”
In other countries around the globe we are seeing very different approaches to assisting those with addiction. Whether it’s clean needle exchange programs in Europe or Australia, or the distribution of safe, prescription heroin by the Canadian government.
Perhaps Pennsylvania lawmakers should consider implementing needle exchanges, which provide free, clean needles and syringes to those who inject drugs to prevent the spread of diseases, as well as continuing to provide naloxone, a medication that blocks opioid effects during an overdose. Gov. Tom Wolf asked the state legislature to approve $10 million in his budget to increase access to the medication. These initiatives would help those suffering from addiction until they are ready to ask for the help they need.
This way, the trust between the population suffering from addiction and the medical community is maintained, and people know government officials aren’t going to deprive them of their rights to curtail addiction in society.
Whether addiction is reason enough to strip someone of their inalienable rights has not yet been clearly defined in any federal law or statute, but that does not mean the answer is unclear.
A person suffering from addiction is not a criminal and should not be treated as such. We need to tell people struggling with addiction that we stand by them, and they can come and receive effective and appropriate treatment whenever they need it.
Adrian Corbey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.