In 2016 there were 117 fatal overdoses in Lancaster County involving heroin, prescription painkillers and fentanyl, LNP reported last week. That was a 40 percent increase from 2015 and more than double the 2014 total. Lancaster Emergency Medical Service treated about 500 patients for overdoses and suspected overdoses last year. In one town in Fayette County, Ohio, prosecutors have resorted to criminally charging drug abusers after they receive life-saving antidote drugs. Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said in an email to LNP last week that “there seems to be a lot of sense to that specific approach.”
It’s a desperate solution to a terrible problem. And we shouldn’t do it.
We understand the rationale. The overdose problem is out of control and drastic measures are in order.
City officials in Washington Court House, a small Ohio city between Cincinnati and Columbus, reached that conclusion after a 10-day period in which 30 suspected overdoses and six deaths took place within its county.
“It was our way to getting to a position where we can track overdoses,” the city solicitor told LNP. “We need to help these individuals as much as we can to break the cycle of addiction, and we can’t do that if we don’t know who these individuals are.”
The drug abusers are charged with inducing panic because responding officers have to revive them with the antidote naloxone. “Panic” is a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. City officials say they have no interest in throwing those who overdose in jail but, in many cases, the only way to get them into treatment is to force them into it via prosecution.
This is an approach steeped in pragmatism.
“We are not going to enforce our way out of things,” Stedman told LNP. “But there is a lot of merit to having the potential of charges to force people to get help rather than end up in the morgue.”
Currently, Pennsylvania’s broad immunity statute does not allow charges for possession in overdose cases. Washington County Court House is trying to get around a similarly restrictive statute by using the “panic” misdemeanor, which city officials admit may or may not hold up in court. They’re hoping the threat of prosecution alone will be enough to get drug abusers into treatment.
We simply don’t believe there’s enough evidence to suggest that the specter of prosecution is the way to get a heroin addict to submit to treatment.
We can’t help but think of Stephanie Evanko. By now, many of you know her story. The 32-year-old Lancaster resident’s obituary ran in the March 5 LNP. Evanko was a heroin addict. We know this because her obituary said so. It also included a poem written by Evanko herself.
I do all the things I say I won’t do, my dreams & goals (YEAH). I threw them away too.
I always claim that I’m a Mother, when in reality I act like a child, and constantly chase “ONE MORE,” another.
Stephanie Evanko quickly became the face of addiction. To date, 809,195 people have read her obituary on LancasterOnline, the most for any story or obituary. We received several responses from readers with similarly tragic stories.
“You see, I am a mom who lost my son, Mike, to heroin May 28, 2015. He was 25,” wrote Pat Zilling of Denver. “The heartache, the arguments, the pretending not to care, the stealing, the lying, the get out of the house, the jail time, the rehab times, the halfway houses and, of course, the overdoses.”
Would Mike Zilling or Stephanie Evanko have given up their heroin addictions to avoid 180 days in jail and a fine? Given the force of heroin’s grip, it seems unlikely. Evanko also spent some time in jail. It’s not a deterrent.
Police and prosecutors are not drug treatment experts. Nor should they bear such a burden. Education, counseling, treatment and intervention, though all imperfect, are our best solutions.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to address the state’s opioid crisis by “diverting addicted individuals away from the criminal justice system and into supportive programs” is, we believe, the right approach. Developing so-called “warm handoffs” — referrals for treatment — after an overdose is a better solution to addiction than turning someone who overdoses into a criminal.
Lawmakers, prosecutors and municipal officials here and throughout the country are trying desperately to get their arms around this problem. But criminalizing the addictions of Stephanie Evanko, Mike Zwilling and countless others is not the answer.
Any honest attempt to get a handle on opioid addition will begin by reaching out to its victims.
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