There is a long-standing debate about criminal punishments for drug use and possession. Some say that we should keep people who do drugs locked up longer, to punish them and deter them from using in the future. Some say that our prisons are already overcrowded, and we shouldn’t waste the space on nonviolent, minor offenders. Most addiction experts point out that what is really needed is treatment, not incarceration, and that not nearly enough prisons offer any sort of substance abuse program. Last year, one town in Ohio placed itself firmly on the punishment side of the scale, charging drug users with “inducing panic.”
Washington Court House is a town in central Ohio, roughly in between Cincinnati and Columbus, that had a population of 14,192 as of the last census. Local officials were looking for a strategy to deal with its opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic, and in February of 2017, they instructed first responders who administered naloxone – the opioid overdose reversal drug – to charge the drug users with inciting panic, a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Authorities acknowledged that the punishment might seem harsh, but told reporters that it allows law enforcement to keep an eye on drug users and offer them assistance.
This action was spurred by a 10-day period earlier in the year where Fayetteville County, home to Washington Court House, saw 30 suspected overdoses, six of which resulted in death. City officials say that previously, they had no way of finding people who had overdosed and offering them assistance before it could happen again. By handing out a summons when people were saved with naloxone, they didn’t have to go to the trouble of tracking them down.
People who call 911 when someone overdoses have immunity, but critics worry that this will keep people who are overdosing from asking for help. Knowing that if they are given naloxone they’re facing imprisonment or a fine they can’t afford, they might choose to refuse it and take their chances. Despite officials arguing that they are only trying to help, people with substance abuse problems typically don’t have a thousand dollars to spare to pay a fine, not to mention the previously referenced lack of addiction care in most prisons.
Meanwhile, other cities in Ohio and around the country, including Cincinnati, have taken the opposite approach and offered immunity to people who turn in drugs and ask for help. It sounds good on the surface, but the truth is that they’ve had very little turnout. People, once they’ve gotten their hands on drugs, are very unlikely to walk into a police station and hand them over.
If you or a loved one need help with quitting drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504 to get started.