It’s common knowledge that throughout the United States there have been countless numbers of overdoses because we see it in the news and we see it within our towns. This is an epidemic sweeping across our nation and does not show signs of lapsing. In 2014, over 40,000 people died from drug related overdoses, and countless others have overdosed but have been revived by police and emergency medical services. Since 2000, there has been a 137% increase in overdose deaths involving opioids, including heroin and opioid pain relievers – which are prescription drugs. An analysis by the CDC indicates that this sharp increase has occurred because of the availability of heroin throughout the country, the increased availability of illicitly manufactured fentanyl (a synthetic opioid), and from doctors overprescribing opioid pain relievers. There have been two sides to the argument about the overdose epidemic: people are voluntarily using drugs and thereby overdosing on their own volition, and that drug use is not a choice but an addiction that translates to a disease. Nevertheless, there is a consensus that this is a continuing problem that is only bound to get worse. How bad is this getting you may ask yourself? Well, the CDC has cited evidence that implicates many states, including: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, having statistically significant increases in the rate of drug overdose deaths from 2013 to 2014. This increase is not just represented in the Northeast, but in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Southwest, and towards the Mid-West. In essence, this increase is all over the United States. There has also been a significant increase in bigger cities, like Baltimore, now referred to as the “Heroin Capital of the United States.” Statistics support this notion of an epidemic; 15.1% of all federal offenses processed by the United States Marshals Service from October 2011 to September 2012 are drug offenses (which translates to a significant amount of drugs being circulated in large quantities around our communities). Aside from judicial resources, this drug epidemic also places a significant burden on our criminal justice system, where over 1,500,000 arrests nationwide were made for drug offenses in 2012 alone. This year, the DEA indicated that opioids, such as heroin, are a significant risk to our country.
Within the last decade, states have been working to address the staggering amount of overdoses and overdose deaths through Medical Amnesty Laws. Currently, there are 38 states that have some form of Medical Amnesty Law that protects, for the most part, callers reporting an overdose, those rendering aid to those overdosing, and those who are overdosing, from arrest and prosecution. This applies to both drug overdoses and for alcohol poisoning of those who are underage. There are also colleges that are adding Medical Amnesty Policies in their Student Codes of Conduct, which nearly have the same effect as Medical Amnesty Laws passed by different states. The Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) has played a crucial part in accomplishing this at numerous colleges. A specific example can be seen at my undergraduate institution, Ithaca College. There, a friend of mine, who was the President of the Ithaca College Chapter of SSDP and now a Board of Trustee Member for SSDP’s National Chapter, worked with Ithaca College to adopt a Medical Amnesty Policy that has proven to be successful in saving the lives of those who are overdoing or suffering from alcohol poisoning.
However, there is an alarming reality accompanying Medical Amnesty Laws; people continue to use drugs and overdose without any recourse that may change their behavior. These laws have no initiatives that require those who overdose to seek help in addressing their drug habit in order to avoid being charged criminally. This causes a perpetual cycle of drug use and overdoses that strain emergency services and creates the potential for delays in emergency assistance for criminal activity, fires, and other medical emergencies. An example of overdoses straining community resources has specifically occurred in my hometown, Newton, New Jersey. In one instance, the Newton Police Department, Newton Volunteer First Aid and Rescue Squad, and St. Clare’s Paramedics responded to the same residence for three people who overdosed on two separate occasions over the course of an hour. These overdoses tied up the town’s police department, the town’s volunteer emergency medical service, and one of the two paramedic/advanced life support units designated to serve a county of over 140,000 people. It is important to point out that emergency services are strained all over the country because of the frequency of overdoses, and just not in New Jersey. For example, in Cleveland, seven people died from overdoses in one day and in Massachusetts, the epidemic is so bad that the Boston Globe was able to create a map showing a widespread amount of overdose deaths by town for 2015.
As both a volunteer and paid Emergency Medical Technical (EMT) on three different emergency medical services, I have seen firsthand how police, fire departments, and emergency medical services are strained because of the frequency of overdoses, and how these emergency calls delay emergency services from responding to other emergencies. While it can be argued that this also happens when different types of emergencies occur simultaneously, this epidemic surrounding drug use and overdoses can be significantly decreased by updating our laws. Nevertheless, I know that I will continue to respond to overdose calls and treat those overdosing the same way I treat other patients, since those who are overdosing are still people in need of care. A fellow EMT, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me that he had asked someone he has revived on several occasions with Narcan, an opiate busting drug, why he continued to do heroin and eventually overdose. The patient’s response was simple: “Why should I stop getting high? You guys [EMTs, paramedics, and police officers] are always there to bring me back and I can’t get arrested because the laws protect me.”
While recognizing the importance of one’s life and the importance of granting amnesty to those involved in overdoses, something more needs to be done to 1) help people who are struggling with addiction and 2) limit the strain overdoses have on emergency services. This is where criminal law practitioners, lawmakers, and public officials come into play. An example of this is in Ithaca, NY, where Mayor Svante Myrick is working on a controversial plan to establish safe drug injection sites in that city as of means of combating drug (heroin) use. While the practicality of this plan is up for debate, there may be a simpler, more efficient, and more lasting way to reduce drug use and reduce overdoses. I believe that Criminal Law Practitioners, Lawmakers, Community Organizations, and Community Members can help to address the perpetual use of drugs and overdoses by advocating for change regarding Medical Amnesty Laws. Specifically, these laws should make it a requirement that an individual who overdoses will not face arrest and prosecution in relation to the drugs they used and possess IF they:
1. Provide the police with the rest of the drugs in their possession, meaning they do not overdose again after being released from the hospital;
2. Complete a Substance Abuse Task Evaluation conducted by a state designated evaluator;
3. Enroll and complete a Drug Treatment Program designated by the State;
4. Take and pass random drug tests after the overdose through six months after the
completion of the drug treatment program; and
5. Have a state-appointed guidance counselor, in essence a social worker, check in with these individuals to ensure they are staying on course with their treatment, help the individual gain employment and stay employed, and serve as a resource to hold these individuals accountable for positive behaviors.
Non-compliance of course would mean criminal charges, but those charges have the potential to be adjudicated through a Drug Court enrollment program. This would make treatment rather than punishment the primary focus of this interaction. I believe that this is a way Criminal Law Practitioners, Lawmakers, Community Organizations, Community Members, and Society can come work together to eradicate drug use and drug overdoses.
If you or any one you know suffers from addiction call 1-800-662-HELP(4357 or visit the National Help Website. It is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The number is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental health and/or substance use disorders. This service is free, and provides local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations anywhere in the United States. Callers can also order free publications and other information.