Note: This essay was originally published in TruthOut, November 19, 2015. I’ve reposted it today because calls for involuntary hospitalization are again popping up around the country in response to the perceived opioid “epidemic.” The bill that was eventually passed by the Massachusetts House and then sent to the Senate did not include Governor Baker’s proposal to allow involuntary hospitalization of drug users. Click here for the text of the enacted AN ACT RELATIVE TO SUBSTANCE USE, TREATMENT, EDUCATION AND PREVENTION, signed by the Governor on March 14, 2016.
November 2015: Massachusetts appears to be on the cusp of adopting legislation proposed by Governor Baker (Republican) that would allow doctors to hospitalize drug users, involuntarily and without a court order, for 72 hours (H.3817). Previously, the power to order involuntary commitment of drug or alcohol users lay exclusively in the hands of judges under a Massachusetts’ law known as Section 35. At this time, few states give judges similar power to take away the freedom of individuals not accused of a crime. (1)
The proposed bill also would limit doctors to prescribing a 72-hour supply of opiate painkillers to patients receiving a first-time prescription for acute pain. While the second part of the plan has received criticism – concern that patients needing painkillers may not be able to reach their doctors for a refill in a timely manner – the first part of the plan has received virtual cross-the-board support. According to press reports, the majority of Massachusetts’ sheriffs as well as the association representing Massachusetts’ district attorneys have come out in favor of the bill. Hampshire County Sheriff Robert Garvey’s comments represent the growing opinion that, “The governor’s bill changes the attitude that addiction is not a criminal offense as much as it is a medical problem.”
Sheriff Garvey’s remarks are echoed around the country. For a variety of reasons – including a shift in media portrayals of the race of drug users — – we currently are experiencing a cultural and judicial movement away from criminalization and towards medicalization of substance abuse. Massachusetts might well be the vanguard of this movement. Not only is Massachusetts a relatively “white” state at a time in which the new face of drug use is Caucasian, but it also is the first state to have passed the healthcare coverage reform (“Romneycare”) that later became the law of the land nationally (“Obamacare.”)
Addiction Treatment and the Role of Physicians
Having worked for the past decade with criminalized women, most of whom struggle or have struggled with addiction issues, I am far from convinced that the Governor, sheriffs and district attorneys have got it right. While re-categorizing addiction as a medical rather than a judicial issue certainly sounds like step in the right direction, giving doctors unchecked power to hospitalize people against their will opens the door for serious human rights violations. Our legal system, like that of other modern democracies, insists that an individual should not lose his or her freedom without the due process of law. A doctor, committing people without an opportunity for those people to be represented by counsel, will be asked to serve as both prosecutor and judge – a position that directly contradicts principles of American jurisprudence and places doctors in an uncomfortable and untenable position vis-à-vis their patients. Knowing that doctors have this power will, I fear, serve to discourage people who could benefit from immediate medical attention from seeking assistance.
More broadly, the proposed bill puts the onus on physicians to fix social problems.
I understand that the motives behind the proposed bill are benign. However, I assume that the image of the doctor – patient relationship in the minds of the governor, sheriffs and district attorneys is most likely the kind of relationship they have with their own family doctors – a doctor who knows their history and their families, who has a good grasp of their patients’ medical and social backgrounds. However, it is likely that the doctors who will be committing patients under Governor Baker’s plan are emergency room doctors or hospitalists; that is, doctors who meet the patient for the first time at the encounter that leads to the commitment. Asking doctors single-handedly to take away the freedom of patients whom they barely know is not a reasonable burden to place on doctors.
I have great respect for doctors and I understand their frustration at treating patients for overdoses, only to watch these same patients walk out the hospital door immediately following stabilization. However, the bottom line is that there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that three days of treatment will have any impact upon drug users. (The three day proposal, I assume, is based on the three day commitment for psychiatric patients under Massachusetts General Law, Section 12, though, since no reason is articulated for the three day idea it might just as easily, although perhaps subconsciously, follow the three days between the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ). In any case, there is little to no evidence showing that coerced drug treatment is effective. (2)
When patients are released after their three-day involuntary commitment, there is no reason to think that they will not return to their former drug use. In fact, having abstained from opiates for several days may set them up to overdose when they return to their former level of drug use but with a reduced tolerance for the drugs. (3) If a plan were in place to provide long-term, multi-faceted support after the three days I might have a different take on the proposal. But I do not see that Governor Baker’s bill includes such a plan, or a way to fund it. As I’ve seen repeatedly among the women with whom I work, even the “good” – that is, three month or six month – rehab placements end with people going back out into poverty, unemployment, scarce community support and (often) homelessness. These are sure recipes for sending them back into the drug use / detox cycle.
We Americans have great respect for physicians and we trust that their medical training is the best in the world. However, addiction treatment is not a substantial part of most medical school curricula, and even in instances where doctors took a course (typically an elective) in the subject, given the rapidity with which the field of addiction treatment is progressing, their knowledge in the field may well be outdated. (4) Anecdotally, I personally have spoken with physicians who know nearly nothing about Suboxone and have never administered a dose of Narcan. Few hospitals in Massachusetts, and even fewer in other parts of the country, have more than one or two addiction medicine specialists on staff, which means that non-specialists will be tasked with the responsibility of deciding whether or not to commit patients who, in many cases, are seen as a nuisance or “revolving door” patient group.
I also know from having spoken with doctors around the country that they, like politicians around the country, tend to believe that twelve step programs are effective for treating addiction when, in fact, there is no evidence showing that Narcotics Anonymous participation (and especially coerced NA participation) leads to long-term abstention from drug use. (5) Indeed, I suspect that lying behind the proposed legislation is the notion, propagated by twelve step organizations, that alcoholism and substance abuse are “diseases” that take over one’s life; that people living with alcohol or substance-abuse disorders lack the capacity to make sound decisions (which is why they must turn themselves over to a “Higher Power.”)
I do not doubt that the vast majority of doctors are thoughtful, fair and knowledgeable. But I do know that there is a sufficient history of medical abuses – including medical experiments on prisoners and on African American men (the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment) to require all medical research to undergo thorough vetting and oversight by ethics reviews boards (IRB). In the frenzied panic over opiate deaths in Massachusetts, Governor Baker’s bill lacks a requirement for any sort of oversight. Decades of research show that doctors may tend to treat patients differently depending on the gender or the race both of the patient and of the doctor. (6)
It certainly should raise eye-brows that the popular push to re-label addiction and send addicts to ‘treatment’ rather than prison is taking place at a time when public attention has shifted from Black crack users to White opiate users. At the same time, as I have argued before, redefining people as “sick addicts” rather than “criminal addicts” is not as significant a social shift as one may think. In both cases they are labeled as flawed individuals who have failed to take responsibility for their own lives. In both cases, the onus for “deviance” lies on the individual rather than on the society that creates and sustains social and economic conditions that lead far too many people to feel that mind-altering and mood-altering substances are the best – or the only – means of making it through the day, the week or their lives. And clearly, those people labeled as “addicts” or “drug abusers” are not all that deviant. Throughout the United States, the normative way for dealing with misery is through doctors’ prescriptions for attention challenges, for anxiety, for depression and even for low libido. (7)
And Class Matters
The “epidemic” of opiate related deaths is not spread evenly across White America. In fact, the new attention to white opiate users exposes an important and seldom discussed reality of American society: Class matters. The white opiate users in Massachusetts overwhelmingly come from poor and working-class white communities – mostly non-urban — where good jobs are scarce and where young people see little hope for ever attaining the American dream.
The criminalized women I have come to know over the past decade are, for the most part, poor and white, and I believe that they represent a tragic social trend. According to research published in 2014 by sociologist William Cockerham “For the first time in modern history, the life expectancy of a particular segment of the American population— non-Hispanic white women with low levels of education and income living in certain rural counties—is declining.” And the same decline is happening among white men. (8) Opiate abuse is one of the factors explaining declining life expectancies in these communities, but it is crucial that we understand that opiate abuse is a symptom of hopelessness, disaffection, powerlessness and marginalization. Unless we treat those social forces we are deceiving ourselves if we think that allowing physicians to commit drug users for three days is going to do anything other than intensify those forces.
- Testa, Megan and Sara G. West. 2010. “Civil Commitment in the United States.” Psychiatry (Edgmont). 7(10): 30–40.
- Urbanoski, Karen. 2010. Coerced Addiction Treatment: Client Perspectives and the Implications of Their Neglect.” Harm Reduction Journal. 7(13).
- Strang, John, Jim McCambridge, David Best, Tracy Beswick, Jenny Bearn, Sian Rees and Michael Gossop. 2003. “Loss of Tolerance and Overdose Mortality after Inpatient Opiate Detoxification: Follow Up Study.” BMJ (British Medical Journal). 326(7396): 959–960.
- Rasyidi, E, JN Wilkins and I Danovitch. 2012. “Training the Next Generation of Providers in Addiction Medicine. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 35(2):461-80.
- Dodes, Lance and Zachary Dodes. 2014. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. Boston: Beacon Press
- Staton, LJ et al. 2007. “When Race Matters: Disagreement in Pain Perception between Patients and Their Physicians in Primary Care.” Journal of the National Medical Association. 99(5):532-8; Weisse, Carol S., Paul C Sorum, Kafi N Sanders and Beth L Syat. 2001. “Do Gender and Race Affect Decisions About Pain Management?” Journal of General Internal Medicine. 16(4): 211–217.
- Greenberg, Gary. 2013. The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. NY: Plume.
- Cockerham, William. 2014. “The Emerging Crisis in American Female Longevity.” Social Currents. 1(3): 220-227.
Acknowledgments: I wish to thank Barak Sered, MD for his expert advice and input into this paper. All opinions and errors are solely my own.