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The Implications Of Sharing Overdose Photos On Social Media

By McCarton Ackerman 11/04/16

Are the photos more of a teaching tool or do they only serve to create more stigma?

The Implications Of Sharing Overdose Photos On Social Media

With several police departments across the country recently taking photos of people overdosing on drugs and either posting them on social media or sharing them with news outlets, an intense debate has been raised over whether the images are serving a powerful message or exploiting addicts at their lowest moment.

In Hope, Indiana, Town Marshal Matt Tallent shared a photo with the Indianapolis Star of 25-year-old Erika Hurt, unconscious in her car with a needle in her hand as her 10-month-old son sat in the back seat. Within days, the photo had gone viral and was being featured in publications as far away as Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Hurt was arrested and placed in the Bartholomew County Jail.

Tallent hoped the photo would shine a light on the heroin epidemic plaguing his small community, but admitted he “never thought that picture would go as viral as it did.” But Hurt’s family was outraged, accusing Tallent of humiliating Erika and sparking a wave of threats on social media.

"They said it was a teaching tool. I say they wanted to bring big news to a small town," said Hurt’s mother, Jami Smith, to NBC News. "Unfortunately, my daughter gave them that opportunity."

Last month, police in East Liverpool, Ohio, posted a graphic image on their Facebook page of a couple passed out in their car from a heroin overdose, while a four-year-old child stared from the back seat.

The Morning Journal reported that both overdose victims survived after being revived with Narcan. The driver was sentenced to 12 months behind bars for driving under the influence and endangering children. The passenger, whose grandson was in the car, received six months for child endangerment.

“We feel it necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug. We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess,” read the East Liverpool police department’s Facebook post. “This child can't speak for himself but we are hopeful his story can convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody.”

Some social media users were outraged that the child’s face wasn’t blurred in the photo, while others chalked up posting the image to scare tactics around drug use that have proven unsuccessful for decades.

“People with substance use disorders are not animals at a zoo, and are certainly not a cog in the voyeuristic machine that is often modern day America,” wrote Robert Ashford in a Huffington Post essay. “This ‘exposé’ is more reminiscent of 1980s and '90s 'War on Drugs' material than it is to the public health approach we must strive to take. For those of you old enough to remember, we have tried the same approach taken above just a few short decades ago. It did not work then, and it will not work now.”

However, sometimes it’s the families themselves who post images of their loved ones succumbing to substance abuse. An Ohio family who lost their father to heroin addiction posed for a family portrait next to his open coffin in September 2015, while in 2014, a British mother posted a photo of her son passed out and covered in vomit due to alcohol poisoning after he participated in the online drinking game Neknominate.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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