Should doctors be allowed to commit addicted patients involuntarily to treatment facilities for 72 hours?


Frederick Ryan

Arlington police chief

Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan

In 2015, recognizing that addiction is a disease, not a crime, the Arlington Police Department launched an outreach program that improves access to treatment and recovery for people with substance use disorders. Unfortunately, it took the overdose deaths of many young Arlington residents for us to realize that traditional approaches were failing to combat the epidemic and that police needed to employ smarter community policing strategies to save lives.

Through this shift in philosophy, we have taken a multi-pronged approach to create pre-arrest pathways to treatment for those struggling with addiciton. As a result, Arlington’s fatal overdoses dramatically decreased in 2017, with only one suspected fatality the entire year. We are bucking state and national overdose death trends because we are utilizing all the available tools we have to provide access to quality treatment as opposed to jail.

In my roles as Arlington Police Chief, co-chair of the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative, and vice president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, I recently testified before the Legislature in support of Governor Charlie Baker’s CARE Act, which provides added measures to deal with the opiate epidemic. If enacted, the bill would save lives and significantly expand immediate access to effective medication-supported treatment in emergency rooms, increase access to long-term treatment, and better standardize recovery coaches.


I also support a provision in the bill that authorizes police to transport patients to a treatment facility for assessment and to allow clinical professionals to hold someone up to 72 hours in a treatment facility if deemed medically appropriate. This aspect of the bill does not give police departments the power to do anything more than provide transportation to someone who is in immediate need of medical attention. We have done this for years with alcohol misuse.

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Police have a front row seat to the opiate epidemic and are stepping up to create pathways to treatment and recovery instead of arrest and jail. We need every available tool to overcome these extraordinary challenges, including the 72-hour hold provision for those most at risk of a fatal overdose. I encourage the Legislature to enact the Governor’s opioid bill quickly.


Carol Rose

Lexington resident; executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts

Carol Rose

Governor Charles Baker recently filed sweeping legislation to bolster the state’s response to the opioid epidemic.

The governor is right to make opioid abuse a top priority for his administration. Massachusetts has an opioid-related death rate that as of 2015 surpassed the national average, and there isn’t a community in the Commonwealth that hasn’t been affected by rampant addiction.

But proposals to end this crisis must go beyond old ways of thinking that treat substance abuse as a crime, or a disease that can be treated through coercion or incarceration.


Governor Baker’s plan does prioritize treatment. The problem is, it also paves the way for police and doctors to force people into treatment behind bars without due process, which is both physically dangerous and constitutionally suspect. Along with prevention, the best way to reduce addiction is to provide treatment on demand. That means having enough beds available to people facing addiction when they seek help.

However, there’s a real difference between “treatment on demand” and mandating treatment. It’s a deadly mistake for the state to expand involuntary commitment or other coercive treatment mechanisms that according to a state report actually increase drug users’ likelihood of future overdoses.

We’ve seen before how coercive treatment can go wrong. Three years ago, the ACLU of Massachusetts challenged the imprisonment of Massachusetts women who were civilly committed for drug or alcohol addictions.

Hundreds of civilly committed women were being sent to prison when suitable treatment facilities were unavailable. We’re proud that our lawsuit, together with action in the State House, helped end the practice of locking up civilly committed women in the state prison in Framingham.

Massachusetts is the only state that still incarcerates people suffering from addiction who have not been convicted of any crimes. Even today, hundreds of men are civilly committed for drug addictions at another state prison in Plymouth. Layer on the governor’s proposal to mandate 72-hour detention and treatment for people suffering from substance use disorders, and we’re just doubling down on the dangerous policies of the past — trying to treat addiction through coercion.


The proposed 72-hour hold will undo some of the good progress we’ve made, and we can’t afford that. There are too many lives at stake.

(This is an informal poll, not a scientific survey. Please vote only once.)

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.