Austintown case highlights challenges of overdose epidemic


By Justin Wier

jwier@vindy.com

AUSTINTOWN

The Austintown Police Department received crime- lab results from a February overdose the day after the victim overdosed for the second time.

Samantha Morris, 29, of Austintown, faces charges of two counts of inducing panic; one is for a Feb. 4 overdose, and another for a June 21 overdose.

Charges of possession of drug abuse instruments, drug paraphernalia and drug abuse heroin also resulted from the February call.

First-responders used Narcan to revive Morris both times she overdosed.

Austintown Detective Lt. Jeff Solic said the case highlights three factors that complicate the department’s ability to contend with the overdose epidemic.

One, many people who are addicted to opioids have the potential to overdose multiple times. Two, the state’s crime lab is backed up to the point that it took four months to deliver results allowing police to charge Morris.

And third, the “lunacy,” of the immunity law that forbids Ohio police to arrest or charge overdose survivors at the scene.

The so-called “Good Samaritan Law,” which went into effect in September, protects overdose victims from misdemeanor drug-possession charges. Lawmakers argued charges discouraged people from calling with help.

Austintown needed lab work to find that the substance Morris reportedly had was heroin and that it constituted a felony.

Tom Stickrath, superintendent at the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, said the delays on lab work are a collateral consequence of the opioid epidemic.

In the six years he’s been superintendent, the bureau has gone from investigating fewer than 14,000 cases to between 27,000 and 28,000.

“In the last year, it’s really skyrocketed,” he said.

In addition, the crime labs are processing more complicated mixtures of drugs, which takes longer. Substances such as fentanyl also require safety precautions.

“All those things combined is kind of like a perfect storm, which unfortunately has slowed down our testing process,” Stickrath said.

Those things all hit last fall, he said. The bureau asked for six more scientists, which the state attorney general has agreed to hire. Two are on board, and the other four are in the process of being hired.

“That will help immensely in terms of getting the turnaround time down,” Stickrath said.

Had Austintown intervened after the first overdose, Solic believes Morris may not have had a second overdose.

“You don’t give people multiple chances to kill themselves,” Solic said.

Mahoning County police departments, including Boardman and Austintown, have resorted at an increasing rate to charging those who overdose with inducing panic.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the law director in Washington Court House, Ohio, between Columbus and Cincinnati, asking officials there to stop charging overdose survivors with inducing panic. Much like lawmakers’ rationale for the Good Samaritan law, the ACLU argued it discourages calls for help.

ACLU staff attorney Elizabeth Bonham told The Vindicator in May that overdoses are a health-care issue, not a criminal issue.

“When these folks overdose and they enter the criminal justice system, they aren’t able to get the health- care treatment they need and instead enter a cycle of incarceration and a cycle of debt,” she said.

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