Criminalizing Overdoses: A bad Idea Laced with Good Intentions

Written for Inspire Malibu

March 21, 2017

Nestled between Columbus and Cincinnati, Washington Court House, Ohio, a town with little more than 14,000 residents at last count, is now charging drug overdose survivors with “inducing panic.” The misdemeanor, which can result in a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail, is levied immediately after first responders save a victim’s life, in most cases, with naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

The upside of the misdemeanor charge, according to Washington Court House officials, is that the drug user is now in the system where they might receive court-ordered treatment.

City Attorney Mark Pitsick told reporters that the new strategy “…gives us the ability to keep an eye on [victims], to offer assistance and to know who has overdosed. Sometimes we can’t even track who has overdosed.”

Charging people with a substance use disorder, though, comes with a serious number of negative consequences. These can include the following:

  • In lieu of addiction treatment, an individual charged with “inducing panic” might instead get sent to jail where there’s little to no available therapy and be saddled with an expensive fine they can’t afford to pay
  • A person who’s never been arrested will now have a criminal record that, in all likelihood, will make it harder to get or maintain employment, which is a key driver in an individual’s ability to fully recover from addiction
  • Research has consistently shown that offering treatment to drug abusers is less expensive than mandating prison or jail time
  • Criminalizing overdoses also perpetuates the shame and stigma of addiction and, ultimately, keeps addicts from seeking the help they want and need

The city’s law and order approach to the opioid epidemic is, at least in part, due to a 10-day stretch of 30 overdoses earlier this year. Six of the cases were fatal and one occurred in the county jail. Fayette County, which covers Washington Court House, has a shortage of naloxone due to the increase of overdoses related to fentanyl and carfentanil spiked heroin.

Less than 80 miles away, Cincinnati has taken the opposite approach, allowing full immunity and no questions asked for anyone turning over drugs. Prosecutors, civic leaders and sheriffs who face a constant struggle with opioid overdoses backed the measure.

“We’re trying to do stuff to stay action-oriented, to make a difference,” Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil said to reporters. He added, “We realize we’re not going to be able to arrest ourselves out of this.”

As other outlets, like the Christian Science Monitor and Vox have reported, agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have long advocated that addiction be treated medically, because it’s a chronic, reoccurring disease. Victims of other chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease, don’t live in fear of being charged with a crime if they encounter first responders as a result of their condition.

For people battling a substance use disorder, however, the fear of going to jail is pervasive.

“We are here to help. We are not here to put them in jail,” is City Attorney Pitsick’s take on Washington Court House’s new policy. The goal behind a charge of “inducing panic” might be well intentioned. But for an opioid overdose survivor, the panic is likely to start just after they’re revived.

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2 thoughts on “Criminalizing Overdoses: A bad Idea Laced with Good Intentions

  1. Zita says:

    Great post. I’m confronting a couple of these issues.

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