Editorial: Immunity from heroin is a small step, but this crisis requires much more

It often takes a crisis to get real change accomplished.

The current rash of overdoses is the screaming apex of a crisis that can no longer be ignored. And it’s finally getting some emergency action.

Wednesday’s announcement by the Hamilton County prosecutor, sheriff and common pleas court was a good start.

But just a start.

At Prosecutor Joe Deters’ request, Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlmann issued an order declaring blanket immunity for anyone who voluntarily turns in drugs to law enforcement officials in this county. The idea is to get the drugs off the streets and prevent overdoses and deaths from the killer opiates fentanyl and carfentanil that have invaded the community.

The effort is well-meaning and urgent. Let’s hope it’s effective.

But there’s a big piece missing: treatment.

Members of WCPO’s heroin advisory group point out that it’s very unlikely that active addicts will turn in their drugs. Active users are hooked on the most potent, addictive chemical out there, and they need a daily supply of it just to get by day to day. If they do turn in drugs, they are likely to simply turn around and buy some more. 

What they need -- urgently -- is treatment.

"What good is immunity if people are still addicted?" -- Dr. Judith Feinberg, advisory group member; professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry, West Virginia University

The immunity program will cost next to nothing. Treatment is expensive. Insurance coverage for it is spotty. But getting at the heart of the addiction problem requires treating it.
         
What if addicts could turn in their drugs, be granted immunity and then be escorted to a treatment center? One that makes use of proven medicines -- Suboxone and methadone -- so they could be safely weaned off of heroin and begin to recover from the disease of addiction.

"Treatment should start with an assessment and immediate admission to the most appropriate treatment for the individual." -- Steve Walkenhorst, advisory board member; CEO, The Health Experiences, Cincinnati

That’s the type of program that’s needed. But it would be very expensive. And we don’t have enough treatment space, or enough properly trained treatment professionals to do it.

Police Chief Tom Synan, a leader of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition, put it bluntly in a news conference this week: “We need money.” But where will it come from?

After WCPO wrote an editorial in May calling for a statewide emergency declaration to fight heroin, several policymakers have taken up the call as well.

EDITORIAL: Governor, declare a heroin emergency

An emergency declaration could make available the rapid infusion of money and manpower needed to bring down the growing rates of death and overdoses. But in Ohio, Gov. John Kasich shows no inclination to take that step.

There are other issues with the immunity program. What exactly will immunity be granted for? Many heroin users have outstanding warrants for their arrest for other offenses. Do they have immunity from those?

What if a dealer turns in some heroin and then goes back to the street to continue dealing? Are they then immune from prosecution? Where does immunity begin and end?

And how will we know exactly what is being turned in? The county coroner’s office says it will not be testing the drugs to see what they are.

Wednesday’s announcement was encouraging in that it shows some law enforcement officials understand the urgency of the crisis and are willing to take immediate actions to try to address it. But this crisis has been building for more than 10 years, until now it has blown open. We’ve tried to deal with it using existing resources but that clearly isn’t working.

The immunity program is a step, a small one. Much more is needed.

To start, Gov. Kasich needs to declare a state of emergency to funnel needed resources into battling this epidemic before thousands of more Ohioans die.

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