Ohio City Gov’t: We have to fine and jail overdose survivors to give them “treatment opportunities”

By Alexander Lekhtman|April 13, 2017

If someone overdoses from heroin or opiate drugs and has to be revived by paramedics or police with naloxone, they will be charged with “inducing panic.”

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One city in Ohio has devised what it considers to be an effective approach to deterring drug overdose: criminal charges.

During February in Washington Court House, a city of about 14,000 in Fayette County located between Cincinnati and Columbus, local authorities instituted a new criminal charge against overdose survivors, ABC reported. If someone overdoses from heroin or opiate drugs and has to be revived by paramedics or police with naloxone, they will be charged with the misdemeanor “inducing panic.” This charge is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The city denies that this policy further victimizes people who use drugs, and asserts that it will actually help them:

“It gives us the ability to keep an eye on them, to offer them assistance and to know who has overdosed,” said City Attorney Mark Pitsick. “Sometimes we can’t even track who has overdosed.” The city’s new policy is a response to a high number of overdoses in Fayette County earlier this year. 30 overdoses were reported in 10 days, with 6 resulting in death.

Pitsick argues that the policy is a constructive response to a serious local problem: “We are trying everything we can do. It’s an epidemic. . . Service. Follow up. Just them understanding that people do care. We are here to help. We are not here to put them in jail.” But despite the City Attorney’s assurances, since the policy was implemented people who use drugs in the small city are already facing criminal penalties. NBC reports that since February, at least 12 people have been charged under this policy.

In response to the policy, the ACLU of Ohio wrote a formal letter to city officials urging them to reconsider. “This idea that with something as serious as the drug problem here in Ohio that you are going to arrest, convict, and incarcerate your way out of a problem, that’s the wrong approach,” said ACLU spokesman Gary Daniels.

City Manager Joe Denen affirmed the city will not revise its policy, stating: “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… Nevertheless, when confronted with the options of trying to help or doing nothing, action would appear to be of greater value to the person in need of help.”

The city’s policy was designed to circumvent new state legislation signed last year. House Bill 110–the ‘Good Samaritan’ law–signed in June 2016, provides immunity from prosecution for individuals who call 911 in a medical emergency involving drug use. It also protects the overdose victims themselves. Neither will be subject to arrest, charges, prosecution, or other penalties for minor drug possession.

The legislation, however, was criticized for two provisions that placed restrictions on immunity. Citizens can only be granted immunity twice, while citizens on parole will not be granted any immunity. The law also allows medical personnel to share personal information about the victim or the caller with law enforcement. The caller must be referred to addiction treatment by the state within 30 days in order to receive immunity.

State Senator Mike Skindell claimed the law would discourage people from calling for help out of fear of legal consequences: “Law enforcement is not out there to render treatment. Their job is to enforce the law.” Jeronimo Saldana of the Drug Policy Alliance spoke more bluntly: “This bill has more holes in it than Swiss cheese and could cost people their lives.”

For the time being, Washington Court House has no intention of repealing its policy. While the city’s approach would certainly be a unique way of tracking overdoses, it is by no means the only option available.

Under Ohio’s new Good Samaritan bill, law enforcement can obtain personal information about overdose victims directly from medical or other emergency personnel. The city’s strategy of using criminal charges as a tactic to connect overdose victims with treatment is also redundant under state law. Overdose survivors who call 911 will have to obtain a referral for treatment from the state anyway. This puts into question the city’s stated helpful intentions.

It is unclear whether their policy will help people who use drugs, or merely stigmatize and criminalize them further.

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Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander Lekhtman is an editorial fellow at Filter.