Clark County residents who overdose on opioids may face drug possession charges if they don’t seek treatment, according to a new policy from the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office.
Prosecutor Andy Wilson and local law enforcement officials met last week to discuss how to combat the opioid epidemic, which has caused city and county EMS crews to respond to more than 325 overdoses this year as of March 6.
“It’s just absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “We can’t continue to let people just walk in and out free to abuse themselves. It takes a toll on the system … We’ve got to do something to force these folks into treatment.”
The new policy will educate people who overdose on their requirements for immunity as part of the recently passed Good Samaritan Law. Gov. John Kasich signed the 9-1-1 Good Samaritan law in September, which provides immunity to people seeking medical assistance for a drug overdose, allowing them to report or seek help without charges.
People who experienced a drug overdose or called for help for another person qualify for immunity under the law — if they seek a screening and received a referral for addiction treatment from a local provider.
Currently people who overdose can walk out of the emergency room with no future requirements for treatment, Wilson said.
“It’s just not working,” he said. “You have people who are signing out against medical advice from the ER and they’re back within a day, two days or three days and they’re overdosing again … We can’t keep doing the same thing with no results.”
Law enforcement officers should be able to charge people who overdose immediately, Clark County Sheriff Deb Burchett said. The Good Samaritan law is too lenient on users, she said.
“(Andy) has to do what the state tells him to do,” Burchett said.
Charging overdose patients with drug possession right away wouldn’t overcrowd the jail because it’s already overcrowded, Burchett said.
“It won’t make a difference one way or another,” she said. “Maybe these addicts could get some type of treatment if they’re arrested. If we could just save a few, at least we’ve done something.”
Springfield Police Chief Steve Moody couldn’t be reached for comment on Monday.
Other communities in Ohio, including Washington Court House, have started charging people who overdose with inducing panic. Wilson doesn’t believe inducing panic is the best way to solve the problem, he said. The county will adhere to the letter of the Good Samaritan law, he said.
“Law enforcement response to this isn’t necessarily a public inconvenience required to get an inducing panic (charge),” Wilson said. “All of these jurisdictions are doing the best they can to get these folks help or treatment. Often the way to get these people treatment is the fear of court or the fear of going to jail — and often that’s not enough.”
However it’s been difficult to get people into drug treatment without court intervention, Wilson said. Without pressing charges, he said it’s also been difficult for the prosecutor’s office to keep track of who overdosed in the community.
Now law enforcement agencies will hand out a card to people who overdose outlining the Good Samaritan law — including a formal request that they must seek help within 30 days, Wilson said. If they don’t seek treatment, the prosecutor’s office will pursue drug possession charges.
“It advises the person who’s in an overdose situation of what their responsibilities are so that they don’t get prosecuted or take advantage of the law,” Wilson said.
Police will forward case materials to the prosecutor’s office, who will keep the file for 30 days until a person can provide proof of treatment.
“I firmly believe that probably 80 percent of these people are going to take that information card and throw it in the trash,” Wilson said. “But what that will allow us to do at that point is bring the court to bear on them and put them into the system, which will force them to get treatment.”
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The Good Samaritan Law doesn’t apply to people who overdose three times, he said.
Local law enforcement is continuing to pursue drug traffickers on a day-to-day basis, Wilson said.
“Everybody is working the enforcement side of it, but you have to work the user side of it as well,” he said. “You can’t just work the enforcement side while allowing the users to continually overdose without ramifications, or without at least forcing them into treatment.”
All agencies are working together to design innovative solutions to slow the problem, McKinley Hall Chief Executive Officer Wendy Doolittle said.
“If it works for some, it will be great,” she said. “I think there are going to be lots of different things we implement that work for some and not others.”
The addiction treatment facility currently sends peer support specialists to check on people who have recently overdosed, Doolittle said. About 30 percent of the people who have overdosed are in treatment, she said.
The community may find it will grab a few people with its new policy, she said, but it won’t grab everyone or even most people. It will likely help a small number, depending on several factors, including resources, family support and where they are in the disease process, she said.
“All of those factors will play a part,” she said. “Charges aren’t going to fix your brain chemicals. We can’t arrest our way out of it, but there are some people this may be effective for.”
It could lead to jail overcrowding, but it could also prove to be helpful for some people.
“As a community, we’re going to have to keep trying lots of different things, and this just happens to be one of those things,” Doolittle said.
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By the numbers
325: Overdoses in Clark County this year as of March 6.
3,468: Doses of Narcan administered by the Springfield Fire/Rescue Division since 2007.
540: The number of Narcan doses administered this year as of March 13.
About this series: Springfield’s Opioid War
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about opioid and heroin problems in Clark County in the past five years, including stories about multiple overdoses in one weekend and efforts to expand treatment options. This year, the News-Sun will take a deep dive into the community’s opioid epidemic and what local officials are doing to solve the problem.