How Not to Treat Drug Addicts, Exhibit A: One Town's Ugly Effort to Punish Overdose Victims
Ohio is a state with a serious opioid problem. It's tied with neighboring Kentucky for the third-highest overdose death rate in the country, and the state Department of Health reports that fatal overdoses, mostly due to opioids, have jumped eight-fold in the past 15 years, killing more than 3,000 Ohioans in 2015.
In a bid to address the problem, the state passed a 911 Good Samaritan law last year. Such laws, which are also in place in 36 other states, provide limited immunity from prosecution for drug possession offenses for overdose victims and people who seek medical assistance to help them. The idea is to encourage people to seek help for their friends rather than hesitate, perhaps with lethal consequences, out of fear of being busted.
But one Ohio town is getting around the intent of the law by using an unrelated statute to go after overdose victims. If you OD in the city of Washington Court House, you can expect to be charged with—wait for it—"inducing panic," which is used for cases that "cause serious public inconvenience or alarm."
In the last two months, Washington Court House police have used the "inducing panic" statute at least a dozen times to charge overdose victims. The charge is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The move has drawn fire from the ACLU of Ohio, which sent a demand letter to city officials urging the city to "immediately end its practice of charging people experiencing a health crisis under this vague and inappropriate criminal statute." The city's "unlawful application of this statute will intensify the dangers of heroin use—not help to control them," the ACLU argued.
The arrests have also caught the attention of Human Rights Watch, which called them "misguided and counterproductive." The advocacy group added that "increasing penalties for drug use is not the solution to Ohio's opioid crisis" and "what 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."
But the city isn't heeding those warnings. Instead, in the face of the criticism, the city last week dug in its heels, saying the arrests weren't about punishment, but were a means to help addicts.
"We are not after jail time. We are not after fine money. We are simply looking to get these people some assistance. Obviously they need it, but they are not seeking it willingly upon themselves to get the assistance," said Police Chief Brian Hottinger.
City Manager Joe Denen added that the city is not planning any changes to its policy.
"In challenging circumstances, charging some individuals with inducing panic provides the court system with a means of connecting people in need of treatment with treatment opportunities," he said.
Or they could just offer them treatment.