Health

Cops In The ‘Heroin Capital’ Aren’t Allowed To Give Out A Lifesaving Overdose Treatment

CREDIT: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

If anyone can attest to the failure of the War on Drugs, it’s retired police officer Neill Franklin. For more than 30 years, Franklin apprehended and arrested countless addicts on the streets of Baltimore. However, it wasn’t until he served with the Maryland State Police that he realized that such a punitive course of action failed to address the underlying health issues affecting drug users.

In recent years, Franklin’s focus has shifted from arresting dope fiends to helping them better themselves — and encouraging his colleagues to do the same. As executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a coalition of former and current police officers who support drug law reform, Franklin has his sights set on heroin, a substance that has had Baltimore under siege since the 1960s.

“We have failed to realize that heroin addiction is a health issue. If addicts are going through withdrawal, they don’t care about going to prison,” Franklin told ThinkProgress.

“I had always been in the business of locking people up for drug use. Little did I know that it wasn’t equal opportunity enforcement,” Franklin added. “We mainly locked up minorities in low-income communities. My experiences gave me some insight into how this was not just a criminal justice matter.”

Depending on what happens in the Maryland General Assembly this year, Franklin’s dreams may come to fruition. Baltimore City police officers — often the first to arrive on the scene in overdose cases — could address heroin addiction differently, and ultimately restore their broken relationship with the communities they patrol.

Earlier this month, state legislators introduced a bill that would allow law enforcement officials to administer naloxone — a medication that reverses the effects of potentially fatal heroin and opioid overdoses — to heroin users when necessary. A new state law extended that privilege to addicts’ relatives last year, but it doesn’t apply to cops.

While Baltimore paramedics have administered naloxone on the scene of overdose cases since the 1980s, police officers doing the same stands as a foreign concept. Even with training, some officers are reportedly reluctant to put their skills to use on the streets out of fear of a civil suit.

“There are some police in the state that are using this, but they know they are taking a risk,” Baltimore County Delegate Eric Bromwell, sponsor of the new bill, told a Baltimore County NBC affiliate last week. “They are making the decision that we would rather save lives and face the liability. We don’t want them to have to make that decision.”

Today, one out of every 10 Baltimore residents — more than 600,000 people — are considered users of the drug, according to a Drug Enforcement Agency report. The number of heroin users who have succumbed to their addiction increased by more than 30 percent between 2013 and 2014 in the state of Maryland.

Part of that increase in Maryland and throughout the country, researchers say, has been caused by a recent crackdown on prescription drug abuse. A 2014 Centers for American Disease Control and Prevention report showed that the prevalence of heroin overdose deaths dramatically increased within two years amid a fall in painkiller deaths. The research team attributed that to the use of heroin as a cheaper, and many times more accessible, alternative to prescription medication.

The prevalence of heroin use in Baltimore, a city that has been besieged by uneven economic development and high unemployment for decades, earned it the nickname of “the heroin capital of the United States.” In October, Baltimore officials launched a task force to develop strategies and coordinate treatment options, estimated to be nearly $5,300 annually for each addict.

The heroin epidemic has recently ravaged communities in the Northeast and Southern regions of the United States, both experiencing increases of 211 percent and 181 percent respectively. Young people reeling from opioid addiction especially have fallen prey to the allure of heroin, which can be crushed up and sniffed in a fashion similar to that of prescription medication. The story is the same for young heroin addicts in Maryland. Deaths among millennials between the ages of 15 and 24 increased by more than 50 percent within a two-year period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Authorizing law enforcement officers to administer naloxone is not a totally new idea. In 2010, the Quincy Police Department in Massachusetts became the first municipal body in the country to train its officers to use the overdose reversal drug. The department has since prevented more than 180 overdose deaths. Firefighters in neighboring Weymouth followed suit in 2013, a move that saved more than two dozen lives in the months after. A similar program was enacted in New York City last year.

Last spring, Attorney General Eric Holder encouraged federal law enforcement personnel to begin carrying naloxone, saying that “expanding the availability of naloxone has the potential to save the lives, families and futures of countless people across the nation.”

The practice is currently legally permitted in some parts of Maryland, including neighboring Anne Arundel and Charles Counties. In Anne Arundel, the county department of health started training officers in March 2014 after the crackdown on the illicit use of oxycodone and other prescription drugs increased, giving advocates some hope that the same will happen in Baltimore. “The officers doing the work on the street everyday know it’s a health issue and they don’t want to arrest the addicts who commit crime to feed their addiction,” Franklin told ThinkProgress.

The bill, currently in debate in the House, has the support of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo), a nonprofit that advocates for county issues at the state level. Natasha Mehu, a policy analyst at the Annapolis, Maryland-based organization, told ThinkProgress that MACo is also pushing for legislation that would expand treatment, revamp grant programs that fund substance abuse treatment across the state.

However, even if the Good Samaritan Act were to allow police officers in Baltimore to administer naloxone, activist Toni Torsch worries that young heroin users’ fear of law enforcement will negate any progress. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Torsch recounted a meeting with high school students during which the group inquired about what the Good Samaritan Law meant for those on probation for prior offenses.

“Hopefully this bill passes and has something included in that protects anyone on probation or parole who reports an overdose to the police,” said Torsch, director of the Daniel Carl Torsch Foundation, named after her son who died from a drug overdose. “The young people have to know that the police aren’t there to harm them. It’s important now more than ever to build that relationship and instill that confidence. I want to know that when I call, whoever shows up will have the tools to save my loved one or friend.”