Washington, like much of the country, is in the midst of a drug epidemic: According the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Institute, there were 132 heroin overdose deaths in King County in 2015; in 2009, there were just 49. Nationwide, overdoses have now surpassed traffic accidents as the leading cause of accidental death, and opioid overdoses killed more than 33,000 people in 2015.
A bill proposed in the Washington Senate on Monday would send heroin and opioid users to drug treatment whether they want to go or not.
The bill, which is sponsored by Republican Senator Steve O’Ban of Pierce County, is an expansion of the Involuntary Treatment Act, and would allow for the involuntary commitment of individuals who have had three or more possession arrests within a year, any drug-related hospitalizations, or who have three or more visible track marks.
While a related bill was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee last year and allows for the involuntary commitment of drug users determined to be at risk to themselves or others, this new bill goes further by targeting people who have been arrested, hospitalized, or who simply show the physical signs of drug use.
Clearly, heroin and opioid addiction is a serious problem. Experts working in the field, however, say involuntary commitment is not likely to fix it. “Committing someone to treatment is like committing someone to the gym,” says Dak Wasson, the director of MacPherson Pacific Counseling Services. “You can make them go but they are not necessarily going to do anything once they get there.”
Wasson says what is needed is a more holistic approach than sending addicts to treatment against their will—one that also addresses issues of poverty, housing, and mental and physical health. “It's far more complicated than lawmakers seem to think it is,” Wasson says. “A lot of lawmakers think that treatment for drug addiction is the same as treatment for a broken bone. I break my bone, I get a cast, and then the cast comes off and we're good. That approach for chemical dependency does way more harm than good.”
Sen. O’Ban did not return requests for comment, but he told the Associated Press that while this bill is unlikely to advance during this legislative session, his intention was to start a discussion. The Senator may have been better served had he talked to actual addiction experts first: “Treatment is not a quick fix,” says Wasson, “but legislation like this makes it sound like it is. I would encourage the legislature to remove some of the barriers to social services in general, not just drug treatment. Curtailing the use of the substance itself is just the beginning of the solution.”