One of the fundamental tenets of recovery is that it ultimately has to be the addict’s decision. Conventional wisdom indicates that an addict can’t get clean for anyone else but themselves and they have to truly want to enter treatment. This assertion is of little comfort, however, to the millions of families that have been ripped apart by drug and alcohol abuse. At some point, every loved one of an addict has wished they could force them to get help, but with relapse rates among recovering addicts being as high as they are, is that really the answer? Certain members of the Pennsylvania State Legislature are thinking it might be.
State Minority Leader Senator Jay Costa, Pennsylvania’s highest-ranking democrat, recently introduced legislation into the Harrisburg chamber that would let family members petition to involuntarily commit a relative to treatment. In the House, the Republican chairman of the Health Committee says he is preparing a separate bill that would allow involuntary treatment of a drug user after an overdose. The ideas come as leaders from both parties have heard from more and more aggrieved constituents claiming to feel powerless to do anything about their loved ones’ substance abuse and chemical dependency. Pennsylvania saw a nearly 24 percent increase in overdoses from 2014 to 2015, most of which was from heroin and opioids.
While overdose prevention is one of the few examples of bipartisan cooperation exhibited by PA lawmakers, the idea of forced treatment is raising some eyebrows. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said it would oppose Costa’s bill, which would allow involuntary drug-treatment commitments after a petition from a spouse or relative, an evaluation by a physician, and a hearing, citing concerns that this approach may undermine people’s fundamental rights to liberty. The organization is also concerned about the ambiguity of the bill’s language, specifically at what point the family and doctor can step in on the addict’s behalf. They also indicated that they would like to see additional verification measures beyond the word of a single doctor before a person is labeled an addict.
Despite institutional pushback from human rights groups, the idea of compulsory treatment admission is gaining more and more legislative support from lawmakers who are exhausted from trying to find solutions to this urgent and devastating public health issue. No matter what side of the political aisle one may occupy, it’s worth examining whether forced treatment is the best answer, as well as its long-term efficacy. It could very well save the lives of many vulnerable people who would never seek treatment on their own; but it could also set a dangerous precedent regarding a person’s individual rights. While addiction is a disease that often robs victims of the ability to make their own decisions, just how far does that inability go? With more and more Pennsylvanians dying from drug overdose, there’s an increasing effort to preserve the first word in the phrase “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, even it means giving the rest of the phrase a little less weight.