Despite public push for treatment, Ohio continues to jail opioid addicts

A county in northern Ohio is overcrowded with people in withdrawal.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) tours the First Step Home, a women’s drug addiction treatment facility, with president and CEO Margo Spence. CREDIT: Associated Press/ John Minchillo
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) tours the First Step Home, a women’s drug addiction treatment facility, with president and CEO Margo Spence. CREDIT: Associated Press/ John Minchillo

Last month, Ohio’s attorney general embarked on a statewide tour to advocate treatment — as opposed to incarceration — for opioid addicts. But the state, which has a pervasive opioid problem, has a long way to go.

On Monday, a county sheriff revealed that the local jail is overflowing with addicts to the point that the facility’s operations have been hindered.

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According to Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn of Wood County, the Justice Center, the county jail, has become a de facto medical ward. The jail’s booking center and cells are now filled to the brink with people who are experiencing withdrawals. They’re also mixed in with inmates on suicide watch and others with mental illness. But instead of decriminalizing drug abuse and treating addicts elsewhere, the sheriff wants to create more jail space to hold people.

Wasylyshyn’s plan undermines what Ohio officials, including Attorney General Mike DeWine, have advocated to address the state’s drug crisis.

Ohio’s population has been ravaged by opioid addiction. In 2015 alone, 3,050 people overdosed. As of April, Ohio was home to roughly 200,000 addicts. Heroin and fentanyl are common drugs of choice.

DeWine wants Ohio to emphasize medical and mental health treatment for opioid users in lieu of sending them to jail. He specifically supports drug courts to divert users from jail or prison to community-based treatment facilities.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” he said in April, during a U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that took place in Cleveland. “This takes a holistic approach. We have to have education. We have to have prevention. We have to have treatment.”

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U.S. Senators from Ohio, Rob Portman (R) and Sherrod Brown (D), were also in attendance, and agree that the battle to end the opioid crisis needs to be approached from a public health lens. Portman introduced the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act in March, which received overwhelming support in the Senate. But the House has dragged its feet on taking up the bill.

“This is about treating addiction as disease like any other disease. It’s not about a moral failing,” Portman testified during the April hearing. “It’s about having a disease.”

Ohio isn’t the only state that’s still criminalizing drug users, despite a growing push to treat the national opioid crisis as a public health issue. Addicts are dying in jails across the country, because of forced withdrawal. The vast majority of jails fail to provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs for inmates arrested for drug offenses.