Involuntary Civil Commitment for Substance Abuse

It might surprise many to know that, as of 2015, thirty-three states (including the District of Columbia) have laws on the books authorizing civil commitment for adults who have substance abuse issues—absent any criminal charge. It might be even more surprising to know that Texas is among those thirty-three states. You might assume that, even though Texas has a statute authorizing an adult with substance abuse issues to be subject to civil commitment against his will, the statute is never used. You would be mistaken. Eight years ago (in 2010), before the opioid epidemic had significantly taken hold in Texas, the Lone Star State sent 22 people, against their will, to a civil commitment facility for substance abuse. Presumably, that number has, and will, only continue to rise. (The specific provision permitting involuntary commitment in Texas for adults with substance abuse issues is found in Texas Health and Safety Code section 462.041.)

 

Rather than go through the specifics of what is required for emergency detention (i.e. arrest—a warrant issues before the hearing where the significantly low “preponderance of the evidence” legal standard is employed, and before the commitment) under the Texas law permitting involuntary commitment for adults with substance abuse, I think some discussion is in order about whether or not this law is a good idea.

 

A quick look at my website, or brief scroll through my blog posts to date, makes it clear that (1) I devote a great deal of attention to drug charges and the laws concerning drug charges in Texas; and (2) that I believe substance abuse treatment and drug law reform are critically necessary. I have lifelong friends and family members who currently have substance abuse issues or have lost their life to substance abuse issues. I, perhaps more than most, should be receptive to laws permitting those with substance abuse issues to be forced into treatment.

 

I am not, however. I have serious reservations about confining anyone not accused of, or convicted of, a criminal offense against their will—for any reason. The fact that a person has substance abuse issues, and needs help desperately, does not, in my view, mean the person should have their liberty stripped from them. It means that we should encourage the person to get help; to provide them with available resources to get help; to support the person in getting help; etc. It does not mean we should lock the person up, even in a (relative to jail or prison) nicer facility.

 

If we believe the only options we have for people who suffer with substance abuse issues are to either lock them up against their will in commitment facilities or to do nothing, then we aren’t thinking about the problem intelligently or with much thought. We must do better.