East Liverpool Police Photos Highlight Stark Divide in Public Attitude toward Drug Crimes and Opioid Crisis

East Liverpool Police Photos Highlight Stark Divide in Public Attitude toward Drug Crimes and Opioid Crisis

The East Liverpool Police Department in Ohio recently commanded the American public’s attention by posting the now-viral images of two people sitting in a car, overdosed from heroin, with a four year old child sitting alert in the back seat.  Privacy issues set aside, this unfortunate scene has people starkly divided.  Some people view the police’s photos as perpetuating stigma, fueling a lynch-mob mentality towards vigilante justice against people afflicted with substance use disorder.  Others see the images as important in context of highlighting the collateral damage caused by the larger public health issue: the opioid epidemic.  Others still just see two people who need to be punished for putting an innocent child in harm’s way.

If the East Liverpool Police Department’s purpose was to provide a harrowing reminder to the entire world of the collateral damage caused to innocent bystanders by a heroin crisis of epidemic proportions, they seemingly fell short.

Why?  Because without appropriate context, history suggests the photos will do little more than contribute to a strict-punishment mentality of people struggling with substance addiction. And the people and policy-makers are not really to blame (to an extent) because why (or how) would they have context when adequate information and education about substance use issues has yet to effectively permeate the American public psyche?

Historically, drug and alcohol addiction has been viewed strictly as a moral issue.  The problem is this view has informed public policy, which has created institutional barriers that prevent people from accessing appropriate treatment because they are disproportionately criminalized for what is now widely-considered a very treatable medical issue.  This outdated mentality has fueled the failed War-on- Drugs, spanning the past 40 years, and costing us upwards of $1 trillion.   In Minnesota alone, from 1998 to 2005, the state’s drug-crime prison inmate population more than tripled.  Yes, tripled.  Further, in 2002, Minnesota passed a bill addressing felony “chronic DWI offenders”, and has since been responsible for imprisoning upwards of 700 people – the same number of people in prison for weapon-related crimes, the combined cost of which comes to roughly $23 million per year for incarceration alone.

Clearly, we need to take a different approach.  When America has 5% of the world’s population, but 20% of the world’s prison population, and with the increase in drug crimes, we clearly need to do a better job at addressing substance use issues.

In addition, The War-on- Drugs has done little to curb drug use, and has been ineffective in preventing drug-related deaths.  In Minnesota, the growing death rate is hard to ignore.  New data from the Minnesota Department of Health show drug overdose deaths, including those involving unintentional deaths and suicides, jumped 11 percent between 2014 and 2015. In 2015, more than half of the drug-related deaths were related to prescription medications rather than illegal street drugs.  Minnesota drug overdose deaths are more than four times as high than in the year 2000.  Death rates related to all of these drug categories have risen over the past five years.

Fortunately, reform is slowly beginning to happen. Earlier this year, President Obama included more than $1 billion in his proposed budget to prevent overdose deaths by expanding treatment programs and options.  Although the funding is far from guaranteed, it’s a start in acknowledging the problem.  At the state-level, Minnesota has taken a number of measures to address this problem.  The state recently passed significant drug sentencing reform, although the law is still far from ideal.  In 2014, Steve’s Law was passed, which expanded access to the life-saving drug naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses, and is available at most major drugstore chains in Minnesota.  Moreover, Minnesota continues to expand its drug courts (also known as “problem solving courts”), which the state says research shows that these courts help people sustain recovery and reduce recidivism.  Lastly, the state also recently expanded access to its diversion programs for low-level offenders, going into effect early next year, to prevent people from unjustly cycling through the criminal justice system.

But we still have a long way to go.

The East Liverpool photos briefly invigorated an online discussion around how the criminal justice system addresses crimes involving drugs.  The question is whether the photos help or hurt efforts to create a more measured approach toward effectively addressing crimes involving drugs to not only reduce recidivism and protect the innocent, but to get people the help they need.  The answer: I honestly don’t know.  But one thing is for sure: We need to focus on improving the way we view and treat addiction, so we can work toward creating a criminal justice system that does not disproportionately penalize those struggling with drug-related issues and a healthcare system that provides access to appropriate services to effectively treat addiction like the medical issue that it is.  Because we’re all paying for it.

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