Statewide response to opiate crisis needed

Issue March/April 2016 By Robert W. Harnais

As you are aware, people are dying from opiate-related overdose deaths in record numbers, leaving families, friends, neighbors and colleagues emotionally devastated and in chaos. The Massachusetts Bar Association is committed to aiding those people in our commonwealth who are overwhelmed by this epidemic.

For the past few months the MBA has been operating a pilot program in Norfolk County in which lawyers have been volunteering to represent petitioners in hearings pursuant to M.G.L. c. 123, Section 35 -- a law known colloquially as "Section 35," which allows individuals to petition the court to order their loved ones into treatment for up to 90 days when their abuse puts themselves or others in danger. Following the success of the Norfolk County pilot, the MBA is building and will manage a statewide program in order to meet the growing need for legal assistance in this area.

I'm asking all MBA members to participate in this statewide volunteer effort to provide professional advice and assistance to the loved ones of opiate addicts. The Section 35 process is an easy, routine thing to do for lawyers, but most of the public is not aware of Section 35, and even less are equipped to pursue a petition in court.

I recently spoke to a woman who flew up to Massachusetts from Florida to have her addicted son "sectioned" down on Cape Cod. We were able to help her because a lawyer from Orleans heard about our program and offered to help if we received calls for assistance from the Cape. (Thank you, attorney Robert Lawless.) It can be an emotionally wrenching experience for a parent, and, as this mother stated, "I'm so grateful someone was by my side next to me helping me through this process."

As I have stated in the past, "Making money as lawyers is expected of us however, making a difference as lawyers is what is respected about us." It doesn't take much to make this impactful difference. We only ask that volunteers commit to handling two hearings per year. These representations are important with potential life-or-death consequences. They are also quite limited in the time commitment required to prosecute, as the hearing often takes no more than 30 minutes and should happen with a day or two of the referral. Thus, they present an unusual professional opportunity to engage in meaningful pro bono activity without a significant time commitment but with significant results. Remember, these people have turned to the courts in a desperate attempt to save the lives of their loved ones. They have already gone through the denial stage and the "I know what my child needs stage," and are now at the help me, my child is in the process of killing himself/herself" stage.

There is no easy solution to the opiate epidemic plaguing our commonwealth. But I am sure that we can work together through this program to provide real tangible assistance to the good people in our communities who are desperately searching for a solution. I am very confident this program will be successful, as I know of no other profession that is so engaged in community affairs and willing to volunteer individual time and resources to benefit an individual or worthy cause in need of support.

The MBA's toll-free Section 35 Helpline -- (844) 843-6221 -- is already live and available to all state residents. We've also prepared training materials for lawyers and are happy to answer any additional questions. Given the nature of the crisis, time is of the essence. I urge everyone who is interested to please contact me at (781) 910-9408 to schedule a training session.