Are Mandatory Drug Treatment Programs Effective?

There is little evidence to suggest that mandatory drug treatment programs are an effective approach to drug and alcohol addiction. The removal of agency and the use of controversial treatments may do more harm than good.

Mandatory Drug Treatment

The implementation of mandatory drug treatment has been a popular political move in recent years. Unfortunately, the efficacy of these programs is not supported by the evidence.

While there are a few cherry-picked success stories that are regularly recycled for the benefit of expanding these programs, the coercive approach of compulsory treatment generally has negative results.

Voluntary participation in a free or state-funded rehab center has significantly better long-term results with a much lower risk of fatal overdose.

The Results Of Mandatory Drug Treatment 

In 2016, the International Journal of Drug Policy published a survey of peer-reviewed studies that examined the efficacy of mandatory drug treatment programs.

While the authors of the survey recognize that there are relatively few studies of this type, the accumulated data does make a compelling argument against the use of mandatory drug treatment. 

Only 22% of the reviewed studies found that mandatory drug treatment had a positive effect on drug use or criminal recidivism. The other 78% indicated neutral or negative effects.

Contributing Factors

At face value, the idea of compelling people to engage in treatment for an active alcohol or drug addiction may seem beneficial. Unfortunately, expectations and reality often diverge.

Several factors play into the fact that mandatory drug treatment is associated with an increased risk of a drug overdose which results in twice as many people dying. 

Forced Participation

Successful addiction recovery programs are built on the willing consent of their participants. Because of a lack of individual agency, mandatory programs are more likely to build resentment. 

Motivational interviewing (MI) is one of the types of therapy used in addiction treatment that has some success with people who aren’t quite ready to pursue recovery on their own.

Unfortunately, this approach and other evidence-based methods are infrequently used by mandatory drug treatment programs.  

Treatment Approaches

Mandatory addiction rehab centers are most often run through the criminal justice system. As a result, the treatments available are not usually supported by current psychology research.

One former participant reported to the New York Times that their mandatory program implemented a technique known as attack therapy, which aims to humiliate the participant.

Attack therapy may be an extreme example, but reviews of mandated addiction rehab programs reveal that a surprising number of them do not implement any evidence-based practices.

Staff Qualifications

Chemical dependency is a complex mental health condition that requires the dedicated care of professional staff. 

Accredited drug and alcohol rehab centers are frequently staffed by clinical psychologists, licensed clinical alcohol and drug abuse counselors, and licensed clinical social workers. 

Staff at mandatory drug and alcohol treatment programs rarely have the appropriate qualifications to offer comprehensive care for people with substance abuse disorders.

The Expansion Of Mandatory Alcohol And Drug Treatment

Given the current evidence, it appears that mandatory drug treatment is, at best, ineffective and, at worst, actively harming participants. 

Despite scientific consensus, political pressure to reduce the prevalence of substance use disorders has many politicians using old data to push mandatory rehabilitation programs.

The New York Times cites laws in 37 states that allow certain parties to compel addiction treatment with active initiatives to expand them in both Massachusetts and California.

Alternatives To Mandatory Drug Treatment

Rather than expanding programs that are shown to be ineffective at supporting long-term recovery, advocates for people with drug and alcohol abuse disorders are encouraging alternatives.

Expanded Grants And Scholarships

Grants and scholarships for addiction treatment are some of the most vital tools for providing easy access to free and affordable addiction treatment. 

While free rehab programs do exist in most states, they are often overwhelmed with enrollment requests. 

Increased funding for these programs as well as individual scholarship opportunities could drastically improve accessibility.

Housing Assistance

People who lack stable housing are more vulnerable to a host of social and behavioral problems, including addiction and other mental health issues. 

Sober living homes and housing assistance programs provide the stability people need to receive treatment and stay sober. 

Employment Assistance

Stable employment is another key aspect of relapse prevention. 

By offering free access to vocational training and life skills classes through inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, government programs could significantly improve results.

Improved Mental Health Initiatives

Dual diagnosis treatment is a core component of quality addiction care because co-occurring mental health disorders are common among people living with alcohol and drug addiction. 

While addiction can contribute to the onset of some mental health disorders, substance abuse is just as likely to result from an existing mental illness. 

By expanding access to free and affordable mental health treatment, state governments could reduce the number of people who turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication.

Harm Reduction

Harm reduction may be controversial, but it is one of the best methods for decreasing fatal overdoses and the spread of blood-borne diseases among people who abuse drugs and alcohol. 

For people who are not ready to actively pursue sobriety, harm reduction is a safety net that protects them from more serious consequences until they’re ready for treatment.

Find Drug Treatment Today

If you or a loved one is ready to get help for an addiction, contact to learn how to get started. 

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