Ohio Town To Criminally Charge Overdose Survivors

By Kelly Burch 03/10/17

Seven people have been charged with the crime since the policy took hold last month.

Man in handcuffs.

Police in one Ohio town have been instructed to save the lives of overdose survivors by using naloxone, and then charge the people they’ve rescued with a misdemeanor crime that can result in a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail.

The unconventional approach to combating opioid addiction began last month in Washington Court House, a town between Columbus and Cincinnati. Authorities in the town claim that charging people who overdose with “inducing panic” will actually help them in the long run. 

“It gives us the ability to keep an eye on them, to offer them assistance and to know who has overdosed,” City Attorney Mark Pitsick told reporters, according to The Christian Science Monitor. “Sometimes we can't even track who has overdosed.”

The measure began after Fayetteville County, which includes Washington Court House, saw 30 overdoses—including six deaths—in a 10-day period. 

“Service. Follow up. Just them understanding that people do care. We are here to help. We are not here to put them in jail,” Pitsick said, according to ABC News. "They don't have hope to begin with, but [by] helping them we hope we are giving them the ability to turn their lives around.”

At least seven people have been charged with the crime since the policy took hold in February. It was not clear whether anyone has yet paid a fine or served jail time for their overdose. 

Opponents of the measure argue that criminalizing overdoses will leave people hesitant to seek help and put lives at risk. But while Pitsick pointed out that people who call emergency services about an overdose will not face charges, others worry that charging the victim sends the wrong message. 

Some say that people who overdosed on opioids will have their lives complicated by the charges, and that the potential fine or jail time is unlikely to keep them from using drugs. 

“If you see somebody who continues to use despite their lives being totally destroyed — losing their jobs, losing loved ones, ending up in jail — nobody would choose that. Nobody anywhere would ever choose that life. So clearly it is beyond this individual’s control on some level,” said Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke in a recent interview with Vox media

Writer Maia Szalavitz has pointed out that policies that criminalize addiction undermine the idea that addiction is a disease, and instead uphold old ideas about addiction as a moral failing. 

“To argue that ‘addiction is a disease’ while criminalizing possession of the drug involved in the addiction is, then, to make an impossible case,” she wrote in The Guardian last July.

“You are saying ‘I think your addiction is shameful and users of the drugs you take should be caged,’ while also claiming ‘You have an illness that should be treated like any other disease.’ Neither cancer patients, nor people with diabetes nor those with depression are put into this double bind: no actual disease is seen this way.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.