Section 35 Explained to Public Interest Leadership Program

Last month, the Public Interest Leadership Program (PILP) heard from Professor Leo Beletsky (Northeastern University School of Law and Bouvé College of Health Sciences) on the public health and civil rights implications of Massachusetts’ involuntary commitment law for individuals with substance use disorder (M.G.L. ch. 123 § 35, or more commonly “Section 35”).

Dealing with the Opioid Crisis, one way that Massachusetts has looked to handle the epidemic is to expand Section 35, which allows blood relatives, court officers, spouses, and medical professionals to petition a judge to “section” an individual into involuntary commitment for 30 to 90 days. But Beletsky offered another perspective, calling into question the efficacy of forced treatment, and especially the Massachusetts system. Beletsky explained that the current evidence-based medical practice to treat individuals with substance use disorder is by using “medication-assisted treatment” (a category of drugs that includes buprenorphine or methadone) which scientific studies show as the “gold standard” for treatment. He explained that multiple scientific studies show that treating substance use with medication improves outcomes, and reduces overdoses by 50 to 80 percent. But he countered that, despite these scientific studies, most individuals who are involuntary committed in Massachusetts are treated with abstinence-based methods, which, not only have less effective outcomes, and in some situations could increase the likelihood of future overdose. He then went on to discuss how studies show that forced-treatment like Section 35 does not work for everyone.

Beletsky highlighted that for some families, Section 35 is being billed as the only option, and that a desperate parent or spouse will rely on it, hoping that their child or partner will finally receive treatment. But he painted a stark picture of what that treatment actually entails, as he discussed the need for reform.

For a deeper look into Section 35, read the BBA’s Issue Spot Blog post regarding the issue here.

Meeting recap provided by PILP Member Gregory Dorchak (United States Attorney’s Office, District of Massachusetts).

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