Reforming Drug Treatment Policy in the Commonwealth

July 18, 2014

By Senator Richard J. Ross

Rising rates of substance abuse in Massachusetts, especially the abuse of opiates, have led many of my constituents to express their growing concern. Young people, ages 15-25, are suffering the most from this epidemic and it is time we take action.

Since January, I have been a member of a Senate Special Committee to Study the Application of Section 35 and Drug and Addiction Treatment Options in the Commonwealth. This Special Committee is dedicated to reviewing and revising Section 35 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which permits courts to involuntarily commit someone whose drug or alcohol abuse puts themselves, or others, at risk for up to 90 days and specifies a person can either be sent to a specialized treatment facility or to prison in the event that the facilities are at capacity.

My Senate colleagues and I have listened to professionals in the Departments of Correction, Mental and Public Health, and discussed plans to more effectively combat substance abuse in the Commonwealth.

The Special Committee identified several issues as a product of Section 35. The foremost issue being the mixing of civilly committed individuals with criminals, and in many cases charging civilly committed persons with minor crimes for them to be eligible to receive treatment. Section 35 has also led to overuse and backlogging of the court system. Treatment facilities are over-crowded, fail to provide optimal care to patients, and have a severe lack of transparency and available data on patients after treatment.

To that end, the Special Committee introduced An Act to Increase Opportunities for Long-Term Substance Abuse Recovery to remedy the flaws of Section 35. I was proud to see this legislation pass unanimously in the Senate. It specifically focuses on minimizing the backlog in the court system by finding more appropriate placement for those in need of treatment for substance abuse. These important goals are served through increasing access to vital services through community-based institutions, allowing for the monitoring and regulating of certain high risk drugs, and obtaining data and information on the status of this epidemic in the Commonwealth.

Already, Massachusetts has Office of School Board Health Centers (SBHCs) and Drug-Free Community (DFC) Support Programs in place. While these measures are essential to keeping our community, and especially our children, aware of the dangers of drug abuse, we can do more. This is why we are proposing funding and expanding social institutions within the Commonwealth to better inform our community and relieve some of the pressure from the court system.

Having programs specifically target the age demographic 18-25, is our first goal. These years are a critical transition point when people are most vulnerable to substance abuse; they require the greatest focus and attention of our resources. Discouraging abuse through education, as well as helping those already suffering, by increasing awareness of the options and treatments available to them, is paramount.

Because committed persons are often imprisoned in order to receive the treatment they need, the Special Committee proposes that if a person is committed under Section 35 that the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, rather than the judge who committed the patient, should be the one to assign a person to the appropriate facility that will best suit their personal needs in a timely fashion. This action may reduce the stigma on those who are placed in these facilities while trying to access the care they need. Additionally, more accurate and uniform documentation and data collection on committed persons is needed and may be obtained through this course of action. This is the only way we will be able to evaluate our efforts and funding and conclude whether we are providing the best services to the most amount of people.

Drug and alcohol abuse is a serious safety, legal and quality of life issue we are facing, and this proposal focuses on breaking the barriers to care, not creating new ones. The Senate Special Committee proposes more effective substance abuse prevention through education, improvement in the quality of treatment and facilities available to committed individuals, and a more rigorous system of data collection and evaluation to ensure a brighter and cleaner future for the Commonwealth.

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