[Editor's note: We recommend listening to this story]
Throughout New Hampshire, a shortage of treatment beds has made it difficult for people with drug addiction to get treatment. But what happens if an addict doesn’t want help?
In almost every state, addicts can be forced into treatment, through a practice called involuntary commitment but not in New Hampshire.
For the final part of this week’s series, “Alternatives,” you’ll hear the story of two families in different states who saw very different outcomes.
John Carter was the youngest of four children. Most people in his hometown of Pelham, New Hampshire knew him as Bubba. He had big blue eyes and a smile his family says was contagious.
“So many people loved him – teachers loved him, parents of friends loved him – he was the most generous, loving person I knew,” said John’s older sister Kailynd Biggar.
Biggar gave him his nickname when he was a baby. His father Jack Carter says John started doing drugs as a teenager but the family struggled to get him help.
"His sister had seen track marks on his arm and we need to do something, so I came to her house and went over to the Pelham Police Department and asked them for help,” his father Jack recalls.
“They spent probably 45 minutes just trying to talk to him and they stressed they wished there was something they could do but right now our hands are tied,” Biggar said.
John’s family thought what they needed to help John that day was a rather extreme option: forcing him into treatment, to get him away from the drugs.
“You’re not thinking clearly – the disease is calling the shots, the drugs are calling the shots,” Jack said. “But if you give yourself a little bit of time to clear your head and have that moment of clarity, you might be able to make some good decisions.”
But after they left the police station – John fell back into his drug habit.
“He passed away two weeks later of an overdose of Fentanyl,” Jack said.
This was July of last year; John was 18.
This forced treatment that John’s family was looking for is known as involuntary commitment
It allows a family member, police officer or doctor to ask a judge to mandate treatment.
About 40 other states have some version of involuntary commitment on the books but it’s not allowed in New Hampshire.
One of John Carter’s high school friends from Pelham moved to Dracut, Massachusetts after graduation.
Savanna Maybury is 21 but like John, she fell into drug use as a teenager. Massachusetts does allow involuntary commitment – there, they call it being “Sectioned”, a reference to the state law.
Her mother Tracy Maybury forced Savanna into treatment last November. Maybury vividly remembers the overdose that almost killed her daughter.
“She told me that day in the hospital that I’m not done using and I said, ‘Oh hell yeah, you are. I couldn’t do it as a parent – watch her suffer,” Tracy Maybury said.
Savanna remembers that moment too.
“I had gone home that night and had woken up to cops in my house along with my parents,” Savanna recalled.
“We went to the court house – they had her downstairs in the holding cell. We waited for her case to be presented to the judge – he deemed her to be sectioned,” Maybury said. “And a few hours later she was held at the police station for a few hours and they took her to the Women’s Addiction Treatment Center in Bedford.”
“Other than losing three family members in my life – this was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” her mother said while holding back tears. “But I would do it again.”
Savanna spent over a month in treatment. She resisted it at first but she’s since come to believe involuntary commitment saved her life. She can’t help but wonder how it could have helped her friend John.
"Sometimes I don’t think people are ready to get the help on their own – I think people need that extra push to get a taste of what sobriety really looks like,” Savanna said.
Last spring lawmakers considered bringing this policy to New Hampshire. John’s family was the first to testify.
But not everyone thinks involuntary commitment is a good idea. Some argue if addicts haven’t made their own decision to get help – they won’t stick with treatment. In New Hampshire there’s already a shortage of treatment beds and state lawmakers were reluctant to spend money on any more…so the legislation was shelved.
John’s mother, Sheryl Mercier, has a unique perspective on this. She lives in Pelham, New Hampshire, but works just a few miles across the state border, as a cop in Lowell, Massachusetts – where she has personally asked a judge to send addicts into treatment.
“I have the capability to walk into a courtroom if I know someone is a harm to themselves and others because of drugs and section them. I can do that at my job at any time,” Mercier said. “But once I cross the border and get to New Hampshire – I couldn’t help my own child.”
Advocates say this policy is no silver bullet…but for some families it could be the only option that works.