The rising number of drug overdoses in New Jersey — the leading cause of accidental death in 2016 — is leading some to consider new tools in the fight against the opioid epidemic. For the past couple years, Browns Mills resident Lisa Vandegrift has lobbied legislators for an involuntary commitment law for substance use disorder.
She calls it “Sabrina’s Law,” after her 20-year-old daughter, who died from an opioid overdose a few days after Vandegrift tried to keep the young woman from leaving home.
Involuntary commitment makes sense to Vandegrift, who saw two of her three daughters develop heroin addictions after their doctors prescribed legal narcotics following back surgeries. Sabrina Vandegrift was found on July 4, 2013, dead from a combination of drugs in her system.
“We knew she had a problem,” Vandegrift said. “We kept telling her, ‘We’re here if you need help.’ We’d do anything for our kids. But she kept denying that she had a problem.”
“She was blinded by the drug,” Vandegrift added. “It just consumed her.”
New Jersey is among about a dozen states without any statutes that allow for the involuntary commitment of people with substance use disorder or alcoholism.
“These doctors know that they’re addictive,” Vandegrift said. “Especially with being as young as they were, they should have found every way to wean them off it, before the addiction started. But me being a parent and thinking doctors know what they’re doing and not wanting my children being in pain, followed the doctor’s orders.”
Frustrated by her youngest daughter’s decision to leave one treatment facility after another, Vandegrift began pushing local lawmakers for an involuntary commitment law. She stood outside her Pemberton Township home and flagged down passing drivers to sign her petition.
“I feel like I’m banging my head on the wall trying to get this law passed,” she said. “People just think that for some reason it’s not going to affect them. It might not be affecting them now, but believe me, one day it will. It affects everybody.”
After her older sister died, Stacy Vandegrift also became addicted to opioids, after back surgery. Though her mother locked the pills away and doled them out, her daughter’s specialist prescribed ever increasing doses, until a pharmacist refused to fill the order. By then, it was too late.
Stacy doubts forced treatment could work for most. In recovery since November, the 23-year-old said she nonetheless supports her mother’s efforts. It might help someone who doesn’t realize they have a problem, Stacy Vandegrift said, and if it helps even one person, “at least she’s accomplished her goals.”
“I really don’t think that putting someone into rehab involuntarily is going to help as much as she thinks it’s going to help,” Stacy said during a phone interview. “I support her 100 percent, but I don’t want her to be upset if it does pass and it doesn’t work the way she wants it to.”