Involuntary Commitment: Can You Force Someone to Go to Rehab?

As the nationwide opioid epidemic continues, desperate parents and addiction advocates are pushing lawmakers to expand the use of involuntary commitment laws to force addicts into inpatient addiction treatment. Its a controversial subject with constitutional as well as practical implications.

Most state involuntary commitment statutes are used to confine people with serious mental illnesses but are rarely used to commit those with substance abuse disorders. In addition to issues related to the capacity and effectiveness of locking up thousands of addicts, judges and attorneys are often hesitant to move forward because of civil rights concerns.

For example, when officials in Massachusetts began using the state’s involuntary commitment law to send incarcerated addicts into addiction treatment, the men were sent to a state facility that offered opioid addiction treatment, while the women were sent to a prison. The American Civil Liberties Union sued. The state then spent nearly $6 million to fund 60 treatment slots for women.

Washington state legislators preemptively addressed the problem of lack of capacity by funding the construction of nine new treatment facilities when they expanded the state’s civil commitment laws. Operating costs are about $15 million a year, with federal Medicaid funds covering an additional $14 million annually. Long-term,  it could save the state money in reduced emergency room visits and law enforcement costs.

Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia have laws that permit some form of involuntary commitment for addiction treatment. State laws have varying requirements, procedures and time limits for involuntary inpatient stay.

Typically, in order for someone to be involuntarily committed to a substance abuse treatment facility, there needs to be sufficient evidence to prove that:

  • the person is in fact addicted to drugs and/or alcohol; and
  • the person has threatened, attempted, or inflicted physical harm on himself/herself or another person, or will do so if not committed; or
  • the person is so incapacitated by drugs or alcohol that he/she cannot provide for his/her basic needs, including food, shelter, and clothing, and there is no adult such as a family member or friend willing to provide for such needs.

In every state that allows involuntary commitment for substance abuse treatment, the alleged addicted person always has the right to an attorney. Individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney can get a court appointed attorney.

Additionally, state laws grant the person the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus at any point after commitment in order to have the court determine whether the detainment is lawful.

The information on this website is intended as general legal information only and should not form the basis of legal advice of any kind. Individuals seeking specific legal advice should consult a lawyer.

Written by 

New Jersey lawyer turned blogger, podcaster and legal changemaker.