Ohio has the third-highest rate of death by opioid overdose in the United States, tied with its neighbor, Kentucky.
The Ohio Department of Health reports that fatal overdoses, from which a majority are opioids, jumped 642 percent between 2000 and 2015. Over 3,000 Ohioans died from drug overdoses in 2015, and the deaths do not stop.
In an attempt to curb to the ever-growing problem, the small Ohio town of Washington Court House has gone to drastic, punitive lengths. Using a vague and unrelated statute, authorities are now charging those who survive a Naloxone overdose with "inducing panic," which is intended for cases that "cause serious public inconvenience or harm." The individual charged could face a $1,000 fine, 180 days of jail time, or court-ordered treatment.
In short: After paramedics and law enforcement respond to a 911 call regarding a drug overdose, and once the victim is revived, police will charge the survivor with a misdemeanor.
Why not just provide treatment?
"It gives us the ability to keep an eye on them, to offer them assistance and to know who has overdosed," explained city attorney Mark Pitsick to reporters. "Sometimes we can't even track who has overdosed."
He insisted that the intent behind the new practice is to help citizens with their addiction and to make it easier for city officials to follow up with "recovering" addicts. "Recovering" because studies and prevailing logic show that tactics like these rarely help addicts but, instead, make their lives much worse.
There is expert consensus that addiction is a medical condition and therefore must not be treated as a crime. Convicting a person who is struggling with addiction does not make it easier for them to move forward to a healthier life. There is a stronger likelihood that it will make them more vulnerable, drive them further down the hole of addiction, and ultimately reinforce the detrimental stereotypes already surround addicts. These stereotypes do nothing to positively inform current drug policy so that it is most effective.
According to findings by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 46.3 percent of those in prison are there due to drug-related offenses. In 2010, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 65 percent of inmates struggled with substance abuse and addiction, but that only 11 percent were receiving the necessary treatment. In addition, the prevalence of drugs in prison is widely documented, and the risk of relapse is high.
Human Rights Watch called Washington Court House's strategy "misguided and counterproductive."
"Increasing criminal penalties for drug use is not the solution to Ohio’s opioid crisis," Human Rights Watch stated. "Despite widespread criminalization in the US over the past 25 years – making drug use or possession by far the most arrested offenses in the country – usage rates have not significantly dropped. Criminalization also fails to address the underlying causes of drug dependence. What the city of Washington Court House should be providing is access to health and harm reduction services, including clean syringes, the overdose reversal medication naloxone, and access to treatment."
If someone is ill, you do not charge them with a crime but ensure that they receive the medical attention necessary to heal. While Pitsick seems to be saying that charging overdose survivors with a misdemeanor is necessary to get them into the system and into treatment, longtime drug and addiction reporter Maia Szalavitz told The Guardian that this tactic does nothing but fuel the stigma already surrounding addicts.
"The whole point of criminalizing drug use is to stigmatize drug users," she said.
While Washington Court House's initiative may be well-intentioned, it is terminally ill-informed. Instead of solving the opioid crisis and saving lives, it will drive those grappling with addiction deeper underground and into greater danger. In a letter of demand to city officials, the Ohio ACLU urged them to rethink their methods, calling them "unlawful" and "unconstitutional."
"Ohio faces a tragic problem in the overuse of heroin and other opioids," the letter states. "But funneling at-risk people into the criminal justice system because they relied upon emergency help during a medical crisis is not the answer. In fact, it may lead to even more tragic consequences."
At least seven people have already received summons for "inducing panic," and whether their charges will end with fines, jail time, or treatment — as well as how the court will determine their sentences — is something advocates of drug reform and human rights will be watching closely.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Flickr user Eric Norris