HealthMay 19, 2021

Civil commitment for substance use disorder treatment – What do addiction medicine specialists think?

Amid the rising toll of opioid overdoses and deaths in the U.S., several states are considering laws enabling civil commitment for involuntary treatment of patients with substance use disorders (SUDs). Most addiction medicine physicians support civil commitment for SUD treatment – but others strongly oppose this approach, reports a survey study in Journal of Addiction Medicine, the official journal of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). The journal is published in the Lippincott portfolio by Wolters Kluwer.

"Civil commitment has emerged as a sometimes compelling yet controversial policy option," according to the new study, led by Abhishek Jain, MD. At the time of the study, Dr. Jain was at Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute. The report is accompanied by a pair of expert commentaries: one discussing the idea of civil commitment in a historical context and another highlighting the dangers of coercive treatment and patient harm.

Physician specialists agree: more education and research needed on civil commitment for SUDs

Most states already have legislation providing for civil commitment of patients with SUDs. "These laws create a mechanism for family members, healthcare practitioners, or select others to seek involuntary court-mandated treatment for individuals suffering from addiction," according to the authors. The opioid crisis has spurred many states to adopt new or expand existing laws, or to implement them more widely. 

However, there is little evidence for either beneficial or harmful effects of civil commitment for SUD treatment. To assess the views of addiction medicine physician specialists, Dr. Jain and coauthors sent an online survey to 1,451 members of the ASAM. The analysis included responses from 165 physicians, a rate of 11.4 percent.

Overall, 60.7 percent of the addiction medicine specialists favored civil commitment with involuntary treatment of SUDs. Another 21.5 percent of physicians were opposed to civil commitment for SUDs, while 17.8 percent were unsure. About half of respondents said they would likely consider using civil commitment laws if available in their state, while more than one-third said they were not familiar with such laws.

Nearly 80 percent of respondents believed civil commitment should be permitted for patients who used heroin, while about 75 percent thought it would be appropriate for those who used alcohol or opioids other than heroin. Sixteen percent opposed civil commitment for any type of SUD.

Most respondents believed that medications and behavioral therapies – as well as resources to pay for treatment – would be essential for civil commitment laws to be effective. By large majorities, the specialists agreed on the need for more education and research.

Those who opposed civil commitment were more likely to say it would "jeopardize patient rapport" and would be ineffective for unmotivated patients. Whether they favored or opposed civil commitment, addiction medicine specialists agreed on the need for an efficient legal system, available secure treatment facilities, clear consequences for patients who don't follow treatment plans, and ongoing aftercare. 

A commentary by William F. Haning III, MD, of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Honolulu, discusses reasons for the diverging views of addiction medicine specialists and highlights critical questions for further research: particularly the criteria for civil commitment and the effectiveness of compulsory treatment. He emphasizes the need for "a wider range of supervisory and custodial changes," based on evidence-based approaches.

In another commentary, John C. Messinger, BS, of Harvard Medical School and Leo Beletsky, JD, MPH, of Northeastern University, Boston, call on addiction care providers to "challenge the use of state power to coerce people into treatment settings – especially when such settings often diverge from best clinical practices." They conclude: "Addiction professionals must reject perpetuating punitive structures that harm the individuals we are hoping to serve."

Click here to read “Civil Commitment for Substance Use Disorders: A National Survey of Addiction Medicine Physicians.”

DOI: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000847

About Journal of Addiction Medicine

The mission of Journal of Addiction Medicine, the official journal of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, is to promote excellence in the practice of addiction medicine and in clinical research as well as to support Addiction Medicine as a mainstream medical specialty. Published six times a year, the Journal is designed for all physicians and other mental health professionals who need to keep up-to-date with the treatment of addiction. Under the guidance of an esteemed Editorial Board, peer-reviewed articles published in the Journal focus on developments in addiction medicine as well as on treatment innovations and ethical, economic, forensic, and social topics. Visit us on the web at www.JournalAddictionMedicine.com.

About The American Society of Addiction Medicine

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) is a professional society representing more than 6000 physicians, clinicians, and associated professionals in the field of addiction medicine. ASAM is dedicated to increasing access and improving the quality of addiction treatment, educating physicians and the public, supporting research and prevention, and promoting the appropriate role of physicians in the care of patients with addiction. Visit us on the web at www.ASAM.org; follow @ASAMorg on Twitter.

About Wolters Kluwer

Wolters Kluwer (WKL) is a global leader in professional information, software solutions, and services for the health, tax & accounting, governance, risk & compliance, and legal & regulatory sectors. We help our customers make critical decisions every day by providing expert solutions that combine deep domain knowledge with specialized technology and services.

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