At the request of Mike Schrunk, the District Attorney for Multnomah County, Representative Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) introduced HB 4022, which set up a new system of civil commitment for heroin users.

The bill sought to amend the definition of “mentally ill person” in the civil commitment law to include a person with substance dependence associated with opioids and said that, if such person had two or more convictions for heroin possession in the last five years or had been committed under this law in the last five years, was in possession of heroin within the last 30 days, had no pending criminal charges, and it would be “difficult, if not impossible, to avoid this commission of another” heroin possession offense, the person could be civilly committed. Special terms of commitment would be applied to these persons including a longer period of time in which the state would have authority to hold them. Also, the bill shifts the authority to release the person from those with specific medical expertise to the court.

We testified in opposition to this bill, standing beside other groups such as Disability Rights Oregon, Partnership for Safety and Justice, and National Alliance on Mental Illness Oregon (NAMI Oregon), to express our concerns.  HB 4022 appeared to implicitly recognize that heroin addiction, like all other drug abuse, is a health problem, and for that we praised the proponents.  However, while the ACLU believes that we should look to decriminalizing drugs and focus our resources on treatment, we do not believe that the solution is to give the government the authority to hold a person in custody, absent criminal charges, and force that person to undergo medical treatment against his or her will.

Oregon has endeavored over the years to craft a very limited, detailed and protective civil commitment law that is only used as a last resort and under very narrow circumstances. The ACLU has collaborated with other groups to stay involved in this discussion to make sure that we maintain strong safeguards and protections before the government takes a person’s fundamental right to liberty. Though introduced with the good intention of better addressing drug addiction in Oregon, HB 4022 fell short of preserving these basic safeguards. Addiction to opiates is a serious health problem that should be addressed by increased access to treatment through the healthcare system.