By Justin Wier
The Ohio Legislature last June adopted a “Good Samaritan” law that prevents people seeking medical help during a drug overdose from being charged with minor possession crimes.
The law went into effect in September, but some law-enforcement officials find it difficult to enforce and even counterproductive.
State Rep. John Boccieri of Poland, D-59th, voted for the bill. He said the law is focused on nonviolent offenders who might benefit from intervention rather than incarceration, noting that 37 states have similar provisions.
“There’s really no path to getting well and getting healthy if you’re incarcerating people for a minor” offense, Boccieri said. “The rates of recidivism are really high.”
Last month, a Lisbon woman thanked Austintown police for arresting her after an overdose in May. She said the arrest was the wake-up call she needed, and without it, she would be dead.
Austintown Detective Lt. Jeff Solic, who leads the Mahoning Valley Law Enforcement Task Force, criticizes the Good Samaritan law, arguing that arresting overdose victims is not about incarcerating addicts, but assisting them in getting the help they need.
Judge John M. Durkin, who oversees Mahoning County Drug Court, agrees. He said state legislators are well-meaning but misguided.
“The best opportunity is to get [addicts] into treatment at the time of overdose,” Judge Durkin said. “The sooner that you are able to get somebody into treatment, the better the outcome.”
Solic was among a group of local law-enforcement officials who met with Boccieri to discuss the law. Boccieri said they seemed concerned that the state was micromanaging the issue and taking away the personal responsibility of those who overdose by removing potential consequences.
Jim Willock, Mill Creek MetroParks police chief, said both the Good Samaritan law and access to naloxone, a drug used to treat opioid overdose, have created an environment where people can abuse drugs without consequence.
“We’re further encouraging the use of heroin by saying, ‘Just use it, and go out with your friends, and if something bad happens just call us, and we’ll take care of it, and there will be no consequences whatsoever for your actions,” he said.
Boccieri acknowledged the law has had some unintended consequences.
It has a “three strikes” provision. The third time someone overdoses, law enforcement is able to charge the person. The law also requires medical professionals to issue overdose victims a referral for treatment within 30 days of the incident.
Local prosecutors and police departments are unable to enforce either of these provisions.
“There’s absolutely no way that you can track whether or not someone has engaged in treatment,” Judge Durkin said.
The “three strikes” provision is nearly impossible to enforce as well. Local police departments and prosecutors don’t track overdoses unless someone is charged. If overdoses happen in different counties, it becomes even more difficult because the Law Enforcement Automated Data System, which collects statewide crime data, doesn’t record overdoses either.
“It puts an undue burden on our prosecuting attorneys to track this information,” Boccieri said.
Willock said this results in a law with no teeth to it.
Attorneys’ offices have told Boccieri that it would require their entire budget to track this information as it now exists.
He said more needs to be done to give communities the resources they need to cope with the opioid epidemic.
“We can’t just keep passing Band-Aids down to our local communities,” Boccieri said.
Judge Durkin suggested reshaping the law so overdose victims go into custody and are quickly transferred to treatment without spending any significant time in jail. Prosecution could be deferred if they adhere to the treatment program.
It’s similar to what happens with felony defendants in Mahoning County Drug Court. Judge Durkin said about half of the 1,300 people in the program have avoided further run-ins with the law.
His criticism of the law is unequivocal: “There are people who are dying as we know every single day.
“Giving them the opportunity to walk away without being either arrested or offered treatment immediately means they’re going to go out and continue to use.”