U.S. law enforcement agencies — federal, state, and local — should have learned one thing from the failures of the past 30 years: They can’t arrest their way out of a drug crisis.
Treatment remains the key to alleviating the opioid and heroin epidemic that grips Toledo and the rest of Ohio. As long as illicit demand for OxyContin, heroin, Vicodin, and other opioids persists, people who sell drugs — from street-level dealers pushing dime bags to kingpins who help run a global multibillion dollar drug trade — will find a way to fill it.
In Lucas County, law enforcement leaders had the right idea when they announced a task force and pilot program last month that is focusing partly on treatment. The coalition, including the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office, Toledo Police Department, county prosecutor’s office, county coroner, and state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, plans to investigate heroin overdoses and, in nonfatal cases, steer drug users and addicts into treatment.
Law enforcement agencies can do that best by gaining the community’s trust, working closely with local treatment providers, and announcing a general no-arrest policy for the drug users and addicts they encounter in overdose cases. Such a policy would have rare common-sense exceptions, as when the amount of drugs found in a home suggests that the person who overdosed was a major dealer.
The pilot program and new procedures for heroin overdoses are not, of course, just about treatment. Police will pursue drug dealers and sellers by searching, or sweeping, the victim’s home and gathering evidence, including phone numbers, contacts, and cell phones.
Those leads could help police backtrack and find the person who sold the drugs. Police also will interview the person who overdosed, if he or she is alive, and seek information about local drug sales. In some fatal overdose cases, prosecutors have not ruled out charging the seller of the drugs with manslaughter, a potential first-degree felony.
The Bureau of Criminal Investigation will help the sheriff’s office investigate crime scenes. County Sheriff John Tharp said the new policies, which include talking to overdose survivors about treatment, applies to communities that his office patrols, including Jerusalem, Springfield, Harding, and Spencer townships.
Even for strictly law-enforcement purposes, a no-arrest policy could help. Users and addicts might cooperate more freely if they were sure they weren’t going to be arrested or prosecuted. Others in the community might also trust police officers more, if they were convinced that cops are trying to get major dealers, not make arrests for possession.
Even without an official policy, Sheriff Tharp and Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates have suggested that in dealing with those who have survived a heroin overdose, treatment — not arrest and prosecution — would be the task force’s priority. “In those cases, we need to be looking at treatment, trying to stop the supply, and maybe saving lives,” Sheriff Tharp told The Blade’s editorial page. “If we can get a person into treatment, it might not happen again.”
Making such priorities formal and public is not without precedent for urban law enforcement agencies. In a successful multijurisdictional effort to reduce violence in Baltimore starting in 2007, the city’s police commissioner told his officers to cut back on drug arrests and focus instead on violent repeat offenders and illegal guns.
Until now, local law enforcement officials have generally dismissed heroin overdoses as accidents or, in rare cases, suicides. Lucas County police agencies and prosecutors deserve credit for taking more proactive measures, and for assuming responsibility for getting people into treatment.
A public no-arrest policy would make their priorities even clearer to county residents, and make them more effective in working with drug users, addicts, and local treatment providers.