Opioid Users Request 'Involuntary Commitment' To Get Treatment : Shots - Health News Some Massachusetts opioid users are so desperate to quit the drug habit that they are asking judges to lock them up and require treatment. Critics question whether courts should play this role.
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A Twist On 'Involuntary Commitment': Some Heroin Users Request It

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A Twist On 'Involuntary Commitment': Some Heroin Users Request It

A Twist On 'Involuntary Commitment': Some Heroin Users Request It

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People struggling with opioid addiction can find it so hard to get treatment in some places that they're going to court to ask to be locked up. In Massachusetts, there's a law that lets them do that. But as more people take advantage of it, some are wondering whether the courts should play this role. From New England Public Radio, Karen Brown reports.

KAREN BROWN, BYLINE: On a bench outside a Springfield, Mass., courtroom, a 33-year-old man looks more alert than you might expect for someone coming off a heroin binge after being sober for a month.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now I'm probably doing, like, two bags (laughter). And it's getting me high as a kite.

BROWN: He didn't want his name used because he wants to keep his addiction private. He says he's spending a $1,000 a week on heroin and worried he'll overdose. So he's asking a judge to lock him up in a treatment program.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: If I don't do this, I'm going to lose my freedom eventually anyway. You know, like, eventually, I'm going to get enough charges to the point where I go to jail anyway.

BROWN: He's using a 46-year-old state law that allows a judge to order someone into treatment if they're considered a danger to themselves or others. Massachusetts is one of 38 states that allows civil commitment for substance abuse.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Basically, it's a good way to get clean 'cause if you try getting in these five or six-day detoxes, it takes forever. It takes a month to get into the place. And if you don't have the right insurance, they don't want you, you know? Like, it's just - it's a royal pain in the (expletive).

BROWN: Officially, you're not allowed to ask for your own commitment. Someone must petition for you, like a close relative or a probation officer. But you can agree not to oppose it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All rise, please. Court is now back in session.

BROWN: Once before the judge, the man stands tall and respectfully, with a fresh haircut for the occasion. A forensic psychologist testifies that he is, in fact, a danger to himself and others. His lawyer says he agrees to treatment.

UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: OK, very good. Sir, I do find that there is a basis for the commitment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you, Your Honor.

BROWN: As a court officer leads him away in handcuffs, the man smiles at his family and looks relieved. That same afternoon, the judge commits three other heroin addicts to detox, all of them willing. Most hoped to be assigned to a privately run treatment center connected to the courts. But if there's no room there, some will end up at a more bare-boned program at the state prison.


BROWN: This year, about 8,000 people will be committed to substance-abuse treatment in Massachusetts. That's up 40 percent from five years ago. It's not clear how many of those are voluntary. Massachusetts state senator Jennifer Flanagan led an investigation into this trend partly to understand why addicts were trying to get committed. She learned that many just couldn't find or afford treatment outside the courts.

JENNIFER FLANAGAN: If you're an addict, and you finally decide, today's the day I want to go, you may not necessarily go through the hassle of calling every place and trying to get a bed and calling your insurance company. You might just go to court and get sectioned 'cause you're mandated a bed.

BROWN: A bed the state has to pay for if insurance doesn't - and, often, for a longer period of time. While Flanagan calls that a misuse of the system, others say that's what the system is for.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Good morning, Your Honor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Good morning, Your Honor.

BROWN: Judge William Mazanec presides in the town of Greenfield. He considers it his job to help addicts who see the courts as a last resort.

WILLIAM MAZANEC: They're asking for me to use that process to force them into a situation where they can't just walk out of treatment. You have a window of opportunity where they're recognizing this. You have to act quickly.

BROWN: Over the past year, Massachusetts has added more detox beds in the community in part to reduce the need for civil commitment. But advocates say until someone can reliably pick up the phone and get help right away, the courts will remain a key part of the treatment chain. For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

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