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    Baker, top health official tout 72-hour involuntary holds for drug users

    Marylou Sudders, state secretary of health and human services, and Governor Charlie Baker spoke to lawmakers Tuesday.
    Barry Chin/Globe Staff
    Marylou Sudders, state secretary of health and human services, and Governor Charlie Baker spoke to lawmakers Tuesday.

    Governor Charlie Baker and the state’s health and human services chief Tuesday urged skeptical lawmakers to give clinical professionals — such as physicians and psychologists — the power to involuntarily hold, for 72 hours, drug users who pose a danger to themselves or others.

    In testimony at a legislative hearing, they asked representatives and senators to pass the administration’s wide-ranging bill aimed at fighting the scourge of opioid abuse in Massachusetts. The bill includes the controversial provision, a version of which was rejected by lawmakers in 2016.

    “Involuntary treatment is, and should be, used only as a last resort,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders told the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery. “However, when used clinically appropriately, it can save lives and provide an opportunity to engage someone to accept treatment.”


    But Representative Michael S. Day, a Democrat who represents Stoneham and Winchester, was among the lawmakers who reacted to the 72-hour hold proposal with caution.

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    “I’m always hesitant when I see additions to our body of laws that provide for involuntary restrictions on freedoms,” Day said.

    State law already allows for people suffering from addiction who pose an imminent risk of harm to be involuntarily held with a court order. But the Baker administration, as it did when first proposing such a measure in 2015, says the severity of the opioid crisis calls for giving clinical professionals more tools.

    “Crises of addiction occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week — not only during the hours when a court is open,” Sudders said.

    Allowing the holds, which would take place in addiction treatment facilities, could help people who might otherwise leave the care of clinicians and immediately start using drugs again, helping them to break a cycle of opioid use.


    And, the administration posits, giving people such as doctors greater power to ensure those with addiction get help would shift the center of gravity away from the criminal justice system and toward the health care system.

    The administration underscores it has made changes to the provision that lawmakers rejected. The latest proposal would delay the effective date until 2020, for example, to give social workers, physicians, nurses, and psychologists time to build clinical standards.

    But several lawmakers and advocates think the provision is a bad idea, and that the current, court-based system of civil commitment should not be expanded.

    “Mandating 72-hour detention and treatment for individuals suffering from serious addiction is medically dangerous, raises serious due process concerns, and wastes scarce resources that should be invested in more effective approaches to combatting substance-use disorder,” said Matt Segal, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

    The Massachusetts Medical Society said the hold provision “raises concerns that patients who have been involuntarily committed would end up in emergency departments, rather than in facilities and programs that can deploy medically appropriate approaches to aiding those with substance abuse disorder.”

    Joshua Miller can be reached at