Bipartisan support for mandatory rehab after repeat overdoses

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square May 31, 2023 

(The Center Square) – Despite the proliferation of anti-overdose drugs and fentanyl test strips in recent years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle believe involuntary commitment may be the next step necessary to ease the opioid crisis.

drug trash

Trash, including discarded syringes and other rubbish, in an open-air heroin market that has thrived for decades, is slated for cleanup along train tracks a few miles outside the heart of Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke | AP Photo

Rather than leaving people with substance abuse issues to their devices, residents would have to complete a mandatory rehabilitation program after first responders revive them from an overdose three times.

The bill, yet to be introduced, is sponsored by Sens. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia. The impetus comes from the suffering Laughlin saw in places such as Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, which hosts an open-air drug market.

“I have to tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Laughlin said. “The human misery that I saw walking down those streets really shook me to my core.”

The goal isn’t punishment, he argued, but compassion.

“We are doing this because we care — we’re not trying to be mean to these folks,” Laughlin said. “We’re trying to help them.”

Noting that some opioid users’ life expectancy can be less than a year, he argued for intervention.

“If somebody fell overboard on your boat and they’re drowning, you’re not going to be shouting swimming lessons at them — you’re gonna pull them out of the water,” Laughlin said. “These folks were overboard and they need a life preserver, not swimming lessons.”

In the legislative memo, Laughlin and Williams described the bill as “helping individuals regain control of their lives” and noted that 35 states have involuntary commitment laws for those with addiction issues. 

If the bill becomes law, mandatory rehab would happen after first responders revive someone with naloxone three times. The goal is not to incarcerate people for long periods of time, Laughlin said, and to help habitual users.

After the 90-day rehab period, “we’ll basically have the yellow brick road paved for you on your way out of this situation,” he said.

The legislation, Laughlin argued, is to help communities along with those who overdose.

“There’s kids that walk to school through this stuff,” he said. “We have to reduce the harm for them, too.”

“There’s good people that live in Kensington who have to pack a lunch and go to work, and they deserve harm reduction, too,” Laughlin added. “It’s not just about the folks who have opioid use disorder; it’s also about the broader community.”

Advocates have argued for other interventions such as medication-assisted treatment, but warn that state support still lags, as The Center Square previously reported, and treatment is harder to provide if users aren’t ready to accept help. 

Rehab centers have also complained that burdensome audits can burn through time and money, and distract from treatment. Staffing shortages, along with bureaucracy, can also require centers to turn away people seeking help even though empty beds are available.

Laughlin acknowledged that mandatory rehab has mixed results, but “doing nothing doesn’t seem like the right thing to do.”

“The day I was (in Kensington), there were so many orange needle caps on the sidewalk, it looked like they graveled the sidewalk with orange caps,” he said. “It’s astounding.”

Anthony Hennen Staff Reporter Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region. Author email
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