Ohio town to charge overdose survivors with 'inducing panic'

The Ohio community of Washington Court House has instructed first responders who administer a heroin overdose antidote to charge the survivors with a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP
Used needles litter the ground along train tracks in the city of Philadelphia's largest open-air drug market in the Kensington section of the city.

An Ohio community is seeking to wage a battle against the national opioid epidemic by bringing charges against people who survive a drug overdose.

Washington Court House, a town seated about halfway between the larger cities of Columbus and Cincinnati, rolled out the new strategy last month. Police who revive someone using naloxone, a drug designed to block the effects of opioids, are instructed to cite the survivor with “inducing panic.”

The offense is a misdemeanor, and can result in a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail.

While the strategy may seem unconventional and the punishment harsh, authorities say they hope to help those suffering from opioid addiction, not just disrupt their lives or stow them behind bars and away from other members of the community.

“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 a local ABC affiliate. “Sometimes we can't even track who has overdosed."

As the opioid epidemic rages on in communities across the nation, many local and state governments are grappling with ways to counteract the powerful addiction. Surges in overdoses and drug-related deaths have devastated cities and towns, and those struggling with addiction, their families, and local officials have failed to find solutions to the crisis.

In Fayetteville County, home to Washington Court House, a 10-day period earlier this year saw 30 suspected overdoses, six of which ended in death. That tragedy spurred officials to take a hardline approach to combating addiction.

Washington Court House officials say they have issued summons to at least seven people who overdosed in the past month. Prior to unveiling the new protocol, police had no way to track those who had overdosed, and authorities said it was difficult or impossible to reach out and offer services to those in need.

Those who call 911 when someone overdoses will receive immunity from any charges. Still, some worry that such an approach will discourage those in need of naloxone from seeking medical attention.

Several other cities, including Cincinnati, have taken an opposite approach and offered immunity to those who turn in drugs and seek help. But many of these communities have seen just a few people come through their police stations to turn over heroin and painkillers, and critics of this approach say its voluntary nature lacks the incentive needed to transform addicts.

"You're asking the addicts and the sellers to give up their drugs. And that's tough," John Burke, who leads a drug task force in Brown County in Ohio, told the Associated Press last year. "They get it and they shoot it up. That's what it's all about."

For now, Washington Court House authorities are hopeful that their new protocol can bring law enforcement and those battling addiction together, rather than leaving each fighting the epidemic on a different front.

“Just them understanding that people do care. We are here to help. We are not here to put them in jail," Mr. Pitsick said. "They don't have hope to begin with, but helping them we hope we are giving them the ability to turn their lives around."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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