Involuntary Rehab: Can You Force Someone Into Rehab?

4 min read · 8 sections

You would likely do anything to get a loved one, who struggles with substance abuse, the addiction treatment and help they need. For some who suffer from substance abuse, talking to them about their behavior and your concerns is enough to get them to seek treatment. For others, discussing the situation and the devastating effects it has on them and your family isn’t enough.

This scenario isn’t uncommon. Among the 21.6 million people aged 12 or older in 2019 who needed substance abuse treatment, less than 20% received any treatment at all, and 12.2% received treatment in a specialty facility.1

Since 1999, nearly 841,000 people died from drug overdose, and in 2019, 70,630 deaths in the United States were the result of a drug overdose.2

For families contending with addiction, treatment may be the only life-saving option for a loved one. So how do you convince them to get treatment?

Can You Force Someone Into Rehab?

Many states allow parents to force their minor children—under the age of 18—to attend drug and alcohol rehab even without the child’s consent.3 However, things change for those 18 and older. Therefore, a number of states enacted involuntary commitment laws (applicable to those over the age of 18).

Can you force someone into rehab? In some cases, yes. And there are a few ways to go about it. One way is through the drug courts, which divert nonviolent offenders with a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) from going to prison and admits them instead into supervised treatment programs, where the goal isn’t punishment but treatment.4 In 2015, nearly 30% of those aged 12 and older who received treatment for substance abuse were referred by the courts or criminal justice system.5 To be eligible for drug court, however, an individual must have been arrested, pleaded guilty to the charged offense, and agree to the court-ordered treatment program.

Another option for families desperate to get treatment for a loved suffering from alcoholism and/or a SUD is through involuntary commitment laws.6 Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia currently have statutes that allow for involuntary commitment for a SUD.7 Each statute varies widely by jurisdiction and specifics, but certain criterion must be met for the involuntary commitment law to be enacted.

What Is the Process for Involuntary Commitment?

To place a loved one in involuntary rehab, there is a step-by-step process—that varies from state to state—to follow. While specifics differ, most statutes require similar criteria to be met, which may include:6

  • A threat. The individual poses a danger to themselves or others.
  • A disability. Addiction has rendered them physically or mentally disabled.
  • Incapacitation. The person lacks the ability to make decisions.
  • Neglect. Your loved one is unable to fulfill their basic needs or tend to their personal affairs.
  • Total loss of control.

Who can petition the court (a relative, a treating physician, a psychologist) also differs among states. However, the person with the SUD must be assessed by a medical professional, who needs to certify, in writing, that the individual requires drug and alcohol abuse treatment.6

What States Have Involuntary Commitment Laws for Substance Use?

States that allow you to force someone into rehab through involuntary commitment laws for SUD include:7

  • California
  • Washington
  • Alaska
  • Hawaii
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Colorado
  • Nebraska
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • Minnesota
  • Iowa
  • Missouri
  • Delaware
  • Louisiana
  • Arkansas
  • Mississippi
  • Michigan
  • Wisconsin
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Tennessee
  • Ohio
  • West Virginia
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Florida
  • District of Columbia
  • Connecticut
  • Vermont
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island

Involuntary commitment petitions preserve the civil rights of the person with the SUD by giving them the right to an attorney during the process and the right to petition the court for a writ of habeas corpus. They’re also allowed to be present at the hearing, cross-examine witnesses, and appeal.6

What Laws Address Involuntary Rehab?

State laws tackle involuntary treatment in different ways. Here are just a few examples.

  • Marchman Act The Hal S. Marchman Alcohol and Other Drug Services Act of 1993 is a Florida law intended to provide temporary detention for those in need of emergency substance abuse evaluation and treatment.8
  • Casey’s Law Matthew Casey Wethington’s parents petitioned the courts in Kentucky for Casey’s Law after their son Matthew died of a heroin overdose in 2002. Casey’s Law, which went into effect in 2004, allows parents, relatives or friends to intervene and petition the court for treatment on behalf of their substance abuse-impaired loved one.9
  • Ricky’s Law The Involuntary Treatment Act went into effect in Washington state in 2018 and allows for the involuntary detainment of adults and youth who pose a danger to themselves or others, other’s property, or are disabled from drug or alcohol abuse.10
  • Substance Use Emergency Commitment/Substance Use Involuntary Commitment This Colorado law allows a person to be committed to substance abuse treatment through a civil commitment order granted by a judge. It’s considered a last option for individuals who refuse all forms of voluntary treatment, pose a imminent risk to themselves or others, is medically and psychiatrically stable, and would likely benefit from treatment when sober.11
  • Massachusetts General Law Chapter 123, Section 35 This law allows a police officer, physician, spouse, blood relative, guardian, or court official to file a petition to ask the court to commit an individual to treatment for a SUD.12

A 2015 study revealed that of the states with involuntary commitment statutes, nearly 40% of them never or rarely apply the statutes to the civil commitment of adults for SUD.13

What is the Typical Length of Rehab in These Cases?

The length of time a person may be involuntarily committed to treatment also varies based on the jurisdiction and may range from three days to a year.6 In Florida, for instance, the court can order treatment for up to 60 days. In Connecticut, the length of rehab time ranges from 30 to 180 days.14 In South Carolina, court-ordered involuntary commitment for an individual with a SUD cannot exceed 90 days.15 And in Colorado, courts can order treatment for up to 270 days.16 Most states allow recommitment if the court finds that additional treatment is necessary.6

Does Involuntary Commitment Work?

The data regarding the outcomes of involuntary commitment laws is limited and difficult to generalize (since the specifics of each statute differ considerably). In addition, states vary in the utilization of the laws. For example, Florida and Massachusetts have reported court-ordered treatment for thousands of people annually while other states haven’t ever used the laws.17

One 2018 study analyzed the experiences of civil commitment on a sampling of opioid users and found that the average relapse time following treatment was 72 days—though some individuals relapsed on the day of their discharge.18 And a more recent study of opioid users discovered that while they support the use of civil commitment to help treat their drug misuse and their mental illness, they found that the civil commitment was more effective in mental health treatment than their opioid use disorder.19

So it’s not surprising that many feel that treatment needs to be voluntary to be effective. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that treatment doesn’t need to be voluntary to be effective. Sanctions and pressure from family, friends, or the justice system have increased treatment attendance, retention rates, and success in drug treatment.20

How to Get Someone to go to Rehab

The best course of action you can take now before attempting an involuntary commitment is to help your loved one seek treatment on their own. If they aren’t ready yet, you can explore options for them. Look for treatment centers that might appeal to them in terms of the location or the services provided, such as legal services, family counseling, educational help, medical treatments, and mental health services. And if finances prevent them from getting treatment, there are options for using public assistance for rehab. You can call an addiction helpline to find help, get guidance, and better understand options.

You could also try to get their doctor to help or ask a medical professional to discuss addiction with them. A rehab clinician may be able to provide an intervention, which involves an organized attempt to confront a loved one about how their alcohol or drug abuse has affected all those around them.

A doctor, therapist, or other medical professional can help determine the best treatment plan for your loved one. Effective treatment programs typically incorporate several components—each aimed at a particular problem or condition—to help them stop using alcohol or drugs.20 Treatment plans may include same-day drug detox, 28- to 30-day inpatient programs, or outpatient rehab, and all will include some sort of aftercare as well. In addition, many behavioral therapies include family counseling, which will allow you to confront the problems with your loved one.

Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.

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