Committed to treatment

Anchorage, AK is taking some very aggressive steps to address public drunkenness in their community:

The new mayor, Dan Sullivan, a Republican, has created a staff position and a task force devoted to addressing homelessness. The police recently gained the authority to dismantle homeless encampments with just 12 hours’ notice. Citizen groups are patrolling parks where homeless camps have been the site of rapes and other violence. But in perhaps the biggest and most controversial break from how the city has handled the problem in the past, a Salvation Army detoxification and alcohol abuse treatment center has begun accepting chronic inebriates who have been taken there essentially by force.

With $1.2 million in new state financing pushed through by one of Alaska’s more liberal Democrats, State Senator Johnny Ellis of Anchorage, the facility, the Clitheroe Center, is accepting people committed under a state law, Title 47. Under the law, a judge can order people into secure treatment for 30 days, and potentially for months, if the police, a doctor or family members convince the judge that the person’s abuse of alcohol has made them a threat to themselves and others. The person does not need to have committed a crime.

“Ten years ago, there would have been a community outcry that Johnny Ellis is locking up people with the disease of addiction,” Mr. Ellis said. “ ‘How can he do that and say he’s still a progressive?’ ”

Now, Mr. Ellis said, the problem has increased so much “that for various motivations people are saying let’s try something new.” He added, “The people dropping dead during the summertime really got this community paying attention.”

One homeless person drowned. Another was hit by a car. One died from hypothermia. Most had been drinking, and several had four or even five times the blood-alcohol level above which a person is considered too drunk to drive. Experts say the problem of public drunkenness is part of a larger homeless problem that disproportionately affects Native Alaskans, particularly men who have moved in from rural parts of Alaska and lost their way in the city. The recession has also played a role.
Involuntary commitment of homeless alcoholics has been used elsewhere in the country. Some homeless advocates say it infringes on civil rights, and they question its effectiveness. Here in Anchorage, several longtime advocates said the severity of the situation had made them open to giving it a chance.

There is also a video about the story here.

Though court coerced treatment is common, commitment to treatment is unusual. Discussion of these matters in papers and blogs suggest we have two options: 1) harm reduction approaches that accept the person as they are, emphasize personal liberty and make no attempt to address the root cause of their suffering; or 2) lock-em up.

I suppose this approach represents a third way in these too often polarized debates and I suppose that’s laudable. The cases discussed in the video and story clearly are seriously endangering themselves. However, the coercion involved in this approach should make everyone uncomfortable. I have a few thoughts about that.

  • First, I’m skeptical of slippery slope arguments. Sometimes the slippery slope is the right place to be.
  • The ethics of this seem to rest on questions of free will in addiction. If one believes the addict is not free, coercive interventions make sense. (More here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)
  • Adopting this positive view of liberty opens the door to potential abuses by the state. Coercion should be a last resort.
  • Attraction is preferable. This problem is not just a problem of individuals with a disease. It’s likely a symptom of a system failure. Does a recovery-oriented system exist? One that encompasses the complete continuum from harm reduction to long term drug free treatment and recovery support? What if we added Project SAFE style recovery coaches engaged in aggressive outreach? Help support a vibrant recovering community that was capable of transmitting infectious hope and continuous peer support? How many could we attract voluntarily?
  • Alternative to palliative care and coercion exist, meaning that those would be justifiable only if voluntary attraction into recovery failed, or as a stopgap while implementing a voluntary system.
  • This approach would require investing in more than just the squeaky wheels. It would mean investing in the well-being and recovery of all addicts.

Another recent study supporting the effectiveness of involuntary treatment offers some context.

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