House proposal would emphasize treatment for addiction over jails

New law would update language first passed in 1978

Kathy Kelker speaks on behalf of House Bill 126
Kathy Kelker speaks on behalf of House Bill 126 on Jan. 12, 2021.

The Montana House Judiciary Committee heard a bill today that would update a section of Montana law that will emphasize treatment rather than criminalization when dealing with people suffering from alcoholism or chemical dependency.

In what she called a “baby step” to the code related to handling public drunkenness created in 1978 Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, said House Bill 126 would update the code to match current medical and behavioral research surrounding chemical dependency and alcoholism.

“Police officers by law in Montana are required to deal with incapacitated behavior (and) their options are to take the person home, to a private treatment facility or another health care facility. That’s all that’s allowed in the law, and that is very unrealistic these days,” Kelker said.

The bill would update the code to replace all mentions of intoxicated with incapacitated meaning, “a person is impaired by reason of alcohol or drug use to the extent that the person lacks sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate responsible decisions and is incapable of realizing and making a rational decision with respect to the person’s need for treatment.”

It would also add the term “chemically dependent” to the code to make inclusive to all people suffering from drug dependency and not just those suffering from alcohol dependency.

Kelker said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder told her that the county’s jails are functioning as mental health facilities because of the limited options police officers have to deal with people suffering from alcoholism and chemical dependency.

The Montana Academy of Physician Assistants, the Montana Medical Association and the Montana Primary Care Association all supported the bill.

Greg Dorrington, who testified on behalf of the Montana Medical Association said he would be glad to see chemical dependency recognized as a chronic illness and treated as such rather than a criminal condition.

No one testified in opposition.

“There is criminalization of alcohol abuse and substance abuse … police officers really know that the hospital doesn’t want to see these people and there isn’t a treatment place in many parts of Montana, so they find a little crime like open carry of alcohol, trespassing .. that kind of thing and then they can take them to jail and very seldom do these people receive any sort of treatment through that process,” Kelker said. 

This story has been updated to reflect Kelker’s correct party affiliation.