Massachusetts police officers will soon have the authority to place into protective custody, without consent, a person who is believed to be in the throes of a drug overdose, an option previously available only when a person became incapacitated due to alcohol.
Supporters of the change recently adopted by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker view it as another tool in combatting an opioid addiction scourge that claimed more than 2,500 lives in the last two years, and consistent with a philosophical shift that emphasizes treatment over prosecution.
An individual who is involuntarily placed into protective custody would not be considered under arrest or charged with a crime and must be brought as soon as possible to a hospital or other medical facility for treatment. Police would be authorized to use reasonable force, if warranted, to accomplish this.
Until now, state law only allowed protective custody for individuals who were judged to be a danger to themselves or others because of alcohol consumption. They could be taken to a facility, such as a detox center, brought home or held temporarily in a police station.
The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association urged lawmakers to extend the law to also include controlled substances such as heroin or other opioids.
Norwood Police Chief William Brooks III, president of the police chiefs group, cited situations in which a person has been administered the overdose-reversal drug naloxone -- also known as Narcan -- but where officers are then left powerless to follow up.
"We find ourselves administering Narcan in drug overdose cases and when the person comes out of it, they don't want to go to the hospital," said Brooks. "If a person just takes off and runs from us we can't take them into custody."
Without further treatment, addicts could quickly feel withdrawal and resume a dangerous and often deadly cycle, he added.
The language allowing for protective custody in cases involving controlled substances was added by legislators as a rider to the state's annual budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Baker vetoed that language and offered an amended version that went further by requiring that an individual placed into protective custody for substance abuse be taken to a hospital or emergency facility, removing other options such as simply bringing a person home.
In a July 8 letter to lawmakers, Baker said the original proposal did not reflect urgent health risks of opioid abuse.
"Those risks are best addressed by seeking immediate medical treatment, either at a hospital or through other emergency medical services," the governor wrote.
The Legislature, with minor changes, agreed to Baker's amendment, though some had reservations.
Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democratic, applauded the intent of getting as many people as possible into addiction treatment, but worried it would only put more strain on the state's overtaxed treatment network.
"The language ... is a step that all parties can agree on, but I am convinced its impact will remain marginal if the people entering an emergency department cannot find more stable treatment," said Keenan, who supports a Senate bill that would expand requirements for commercial insurers to cover certain addiction treatment services.
The state budget includes a $13 million increase in spending on opioid addiction, including funding for 150 new adult residential recovery beds, the Baker administration said.
Vermont recently approved a similar measure that instructs law enforcement officers to take into protective custody any person who becomes incapacitated due to substance abuse and bring them directly to a treatment program, hospital emergency room or substance abuse counselor, if one is available and nearby.
Many states have other provisions for involuntary civil commitments of people suffering drug addiction, including several that allow family members to petition a court for treatment of a loved one.
This article was originally published on July 22, 2016.