Drug overdose is a nationwide crisis that claimed the lives of more than 63,000 Americans in 2016. The majority of these deaths, over 42,000, involved opioids such as heroin, prescription painkillers, and, increasingly, illicitly produced fentanyl. The epidemic has been more pronounced in Ohio than in many other states. In 2017, over 5,100 Ohioans died of overdose – an increase of approximately 700 from 2016. The latest available data, from January 2018, show that the number of overdose deaths in the state increased by 9.3% from the same period the previous year, compared to 6.6% for the country as a whole.
The good news is that many of these deaths are preventable with the timely administration of the overdose reversal drug naloxone and the provision of related emergency care. The bad news is that, in many cases, overdose bystanders do not have ready access to naloxone and do not call for emergency assistance or delay doing so because they are afraid that summoning emergency responders will put them at risk of negative criminal justice action, including arrest and prosecution for drug-related or other crimes. Because the negative effects of overdose become more severe the longer the person experiencing the overdose remains in respiratory depression, delays in emergency response contribute to preventable injury, up to and including death.
Ohio, like most other states, has moved to address these problems by passing legislation that both makes it easier for people at risk of opioid overdose as well as those close to them to access naloxone and encourages people who witness an overdose to summon emergency assistance. However, the specifics of the Ohio laws differ from those in most other states in ways that may make them less easy to communicate and possibly less effective.