If you experience an overdose in the city of Washington Court House, Ohio, you could be charged with a crime.

Within the last two months, the city’s law enforcement has used Ohio’s Inducing Panic statute to charge at least 12 people who overdosed with “caus[ing] serious public inconvenience or alarm” – a first-degree misdemeanor that can lead to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to US$1,000. All this because law enforcement and medical responders arrived to save their lives by treating an overdose.

A syringe used for injecting the opioid heroin. 

© Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

This kind of heavy-handed enforcement can only serve to worsen Ohio’s severe opioid crisis. According to the Center for Disease Control, Ohio is tied with Kentucky for the third-highest rate of death from overdose in the US (West Virginia is first, with New Hampshire second). The state’s Department of Health reports that fatal overdoses have soared to 3,050 in 2015 from 411 in 2000, largely due to opioids.

As the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in a letter to the city, it makes little sense to argue that people who receive treatment in a genuine medical crisis should be punished for criminal inducement of panic. The practice could also have life-threatening consequences, as it puts the loved ones of overdose sufferers in a painful bind – do nothing and risk seeing your child, parent, partner, or friend die, or call for help and risk seeing them prosecuted.

Increasing criminal penalties for drug use is not the solution to Ohio’s opioid crisis. Despite widespread criminalization in the US over the past 25 years – making drug use or possession by far the most arrested offenses in the country – usage rates have not significantly dropped. Criminalization also fails to address the underlying causes of drug dependence. What the city of Washington Court House should be providing is access to health and harm reduction services, including clean syringes, the overdose reversal medication naloxone, and access to treatment.

Washington Court House’s implementation of the Inducing Panic statute is a misguided and counterproductive approach to dealing with Ohio’s drug problem. The president has announced a commission to assess the nation’s opioid crisis and make recommendations. Ending punitive and harmful practices such as this one should be a top priority.