By unanimous votes, both chambers of the Washington state legislature have approved a bill that would allow the state to involuntarily commit "gravely disabled" chronic drug and alcohol users and force them into drug treatment programs. The bill was introduced by state Sen. Jeanine Long (R-Mill Creek).
The bill was formally submitted to Governor Gary Locke on April 9; to veto the bill, he must act by Saturday. He need not sign the bill for it to become law. Gov. Locke was preparing to make an announcement as this issue of the Week Online went to press.
The bill represents a significant expansion of civil commitment procedures to detain persons not accused of crimes. Since the mental health reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, only persons deemed likely to pose an imminent danger to themselves or other have been vulnerable to such proceedings.
"That's horrendous," was the reaction of Joycelyn Woods of the National Association of Methadone Advocates (http://www.methadone.org). "This is a law that can easily be abused to put people away," she told DRCNet. "You call them up and say, 'my wife is doing drugs,' which parallels precisely what used to happen in the bad old days in the mental health care system."
The Washington Public Defenders Association has urged Gov. Locke to veto the bill and asked him to study the matter further. "The system is already under pressure," the group's Christie Hedman told the Everett Daily Herald. "There aren't even enough beds for people who voluntarily want the treatment."
The Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is also calling for a veto. In an open letter sent to Gov. Locke on April 5th, the two organizations wrote: "Given the state's limited resources, we believe that voluntary patients should be given priority and adequate funding provided for their treatment needs."
"Substance abuse is not the same as mental illness," they told the governor. "Mental illness is recognized for its long term effects on judgment, unlike an alcoholic whose reasoning ability returns when he is sober. What this bill is in effect saying is that alcoholics and substance abusers do not understand their need for treatment and should be forced to receive it. The same argument could be made for smokers or thrill-seekers who knowingly refuse to stop smoking or endangering their lives."
But it may be a case of too little, too late. The bill apparently led a stealth existence as it worked its way through the state legislature. The bill's existence came as a surprise to the National Association of Syringe Exchange Networks (http://www.nasen.org), whose national offices are in Tacoma. NASEN executive director Dave Purchase told DRCNet he wasn't aware of the bill. Washington American Civil Liberties Union executive director Doug Honig was equally unfamiliar with it. He told DRCNet he would have to check with the ACLU's Olympia lobbyist.
While private and state-sponsored treatment facilities are available in almost all Washington counties, only the Pioneer Center North in Sedro-Wooley is designed to provide drug treatment for people held against their will. The 115-bed, fenced-in center usually has a waiting list, King County (Seattle) drug treatment official Mike Elsner told the newspaper.
Elsner added that the state was planning a 35-bed, $3.2 million involuntary treatment center in Eastern Washington and had budgeted an additional $2.8 for the statewide substance abuse program. Those acts would relieve the pressure on the Pioneer Center North, he said, although he provided no projections on how the bill would affect demand for its services.
Senate Bill 5051 and its companion measure, House Bill 1292, say: "When a designated chemical dependency specialist receives information alleging that a person is incapacitated and presents a likelihood of serious harm or is gravely disabled as a result of chemical dependency, the designated chemical dependency specialist, after investigation and evaluation of the specific facts alleged and of the reliability and credibility of the information, may file a petition for commitment of such person with the superior court, district court, or in another court permitted by court rule."
Under the bill, if after a hearing, the judge grants the commitment petition, he or she can order the drug user in question to a maximum five-month stay at a treatment center. An original 60-day maximum commitment period may be extended by an additional 90-days if the judge so orders. The bill was widely supported by state and local public health, drug abuse and law enforcement officials, who argued that it would help addicts and save the state money.
Dr. Joseph Barrett is a psychiatrist who deals with substance abusers at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He testified in support of the bill. "The idea is that if we get appropriate treatment, we'll save lives," he told the Daily Telegraph. But he quickly turned to the savings angle. "The other thing is, they're a huge user of resources," Barrett said. "Usually these people are indigent, and they're on Medicaid, and the state ends up picking up the bill."
Sen. Long, the bill's sponsor, reflected the same mixed motives. "I see this as having a positive impact on the people who need the treatment," she told the Everett newspaper. "Very often, they refuse to go, and they recycle through our hospitals, jails, detox centers, and sometimes they end up in our prisons. So it can be a big cost to taxpayers. If we can stop that recycling, $2.8 million is a good investment," she added. "Addicts get to the point where they're not employable, and then you and I pay for their care completely."
Patrick Vanzo of the King County Department of Community and Human Services testified that the county spent $1.5 million in 1999 on just 36 chronic drug or alcohol users, for services such as ambulances, hospitals, police, and courts. The 36 could have had a two-month drug treatment course at a combined cost of $275,000, he pointed out.
The text of the bill can be found online at: http://www.leg.wa.gov/pub/billinfo/2001-02/Senate/5050-5074/5051_01092001.txt