NH family petitions for involuntary commitment to rehab

AMANDA SABGA/Staff photoFamily of John "Bubba" Carter who died of an overdose last week. Father Jack Carter, sister Samantha Carter, brother Roger Larochelle, sister Kailynd Biggar and Mother Sheryl Mercier.

As a detective with the Lowell Police Department, Sheryl Mercier can request a court order that forces anyone abusing drugs or alcohol to be committed to a rehabilitation facility.

Also known as "Section 35" in Massachusetts, the law also allows spouses, relatives and guardians of addicts, as well as physicians and court officials, to do the same.

"I've received calls from people saying thank you," Mercier said. "They say that if someone didn't force them to go to rehab, they wouldn't have been here a year later."

But because she lives 10 miles away — in Pelham, New Hampshire — she had no legal support when it came to combating years of addiction that tormented her own family across the state line.

On July 16, her 18-year-old son John "Bubba" Carter died of an overdose after several failed attempts to get clean. Six weeks prior, feeling like she had no other option, she threw him out of her house.

The tough decision was agreed upon by family members, she said, and they collectively decided to stop enabling Bubba until he became committed to recovery.

In response to the emotional journey that ended with her brother's funeral, Kailynd Biggar, 23, started a petition last week calling for Granite State legislation modeled after the Massachusetts policy.

Under that state's law, a person can be committed to a licensed treatment facility or, if none is available, to a separate unit at the state's correctional facilities.

Though she can't confidently say it would have saved her brother's life, she wishes she had the option to try.

Since it was posted online — at change.org — more than 3,500 people from across the nation have signed Biggar's petition, many choosing to comment with stories of their loved ones who overdosed.

Each time someone adds their virtual signature, an email is sent to the New Hampshire Statehouse, State Senate and the office of U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

Previous meetings with lawmakers proved it may by easier to amend an existing law instead of creating a new one, Biggar said, citing the state's existing Involuntary Emergency Admission policy.

It states that a person can be forcibly admitted only if they pose a likelihood of danger to themselves or others as a result of a mental health condition. Drugs and alcohol are not included.

"Addicts are such good liars. They know how to get their own way," Biggar said. "When we called police to show up at the house for an intervention a few weeks before my brother died, he said all the right things to make them think he was OK and that he didn't want any help."

If he was able to express the way he was really feeling, she said, which was often depressed and anxious, officers may have had reason to take him into custody.

State Sen. Jeb Bradley, who led the state's 26-member Drug Task Force last year, said he's yet to hear a similar proposal in New Hampshire, but would be open to learning more.

"A lot of people would argue that taking heroin is often a symptom of an underlying mental health issue," he said. "There is merit to that kind of situation, that someone who is taking drugs could physically harm themselves or others. It's something that I'd need to look at all sides of the argument."

For a state that touts individual rights in general, he added, he can foresee opposition at the statehouse.

Another problem closely tied to the petition is a lack of beds for addicts across the state, Mercier added.

"Maybe it would be beneficial to have some kind of cross-over between New Hampshire and Massachusetts that allowed people from each state to take advantage of facilities nearby," she said. "There's just not enough resources or discussion happening here alone."

Several advocates on both sides of the border have continued to lead the conversation surrounding the region's raging drug epidemic.

Among them is Doug Griffin — a Newton, New Hampshire, man who lost his 20-year-old daughter Courtney to heroin two years ago. He believes that if Naloxone, also known by the brand-name Narcan, is administered, it should require a rehabilitation stay.

"We need to get them off the street and give them a chance to detox and think about where they're going," he said. "If you can save one life, it's effective."

Similarly, Phil Lahey of Methuen — whose involvement with the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project stems from his own daughter's overdose several years ago — wholeheartedly supports the efforts of Biggar and her mom.

"You have to consider this a diseases," he said. "When someone has a medical problem, there's always space. If you call this an epidemic, treat it like it. There are no more excuses. I pray that New Hampshire adopts this type of thing."

The only thing he's sure of when it comes to addiction, he added, is that nothing is guaranteed.

"They may not want to be there, but something may click," he said. "No matter how you get them in there, it's worth a shot because there's a chance it could work."

Mercier said she's heard from the opposition that treatment isn't effective unless it's started willingly.

To that, she replies "it's no longer about allowing these people to hit their rock bottom. Their bottom is death."