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Public Shaming Of Overdosed Adults By Police Department's Facebook Post Is 'Morally Repugnant'

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Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.
Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.

By Seth Mnookin

I'm going to let you in on a secret: Being physically dependent on heroin isn't fun. When I needed a fix -- and when I was using, I always needed a fix -- I felt as if my skin was shot through with electricity. I used to scratch myself so violently that it looked as if my back had been raked by a tiger's claw. When I scored some drugs, that didn't mean I was going to go and party. Instead, it gave me a few hours reprieve from being bathed in anguish and anxiety.

Here's another secret: Being dependent on heroin is isolating and lonely. When I was using, my family was scared of me, my friends didn't trust me, and even casual acquaintances weren't keen on spending time with a sweaty, anxious mess of a person with a potentially deadly and definitely illegal obsession.

Finally, on the off chance this isn't blindingly obvious: Overcoming addiction is not easy.

All of which makes me wonder who the police in East Liverpool, Ohio, were trying to reach by posting a salacious picture of two apparently overdosed adults in a car while a 4-year-old sat in the back. "We felt," the department wrote on Facebook by way of explanation, "it necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug."

Really? East Liverpool, which borders both Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is in a region decimated by heroin. It's the precise part of the country Sam Quinones wrote about in Dreamland, his searing book on the opioid epidemic. Call me crazy, but I'm skeptical that anyone in the local population is thinking of starting to use opioids because of their fun and glamorous reputation.

It's been 50 years since the American Medical Association classified alcohol abuse as a disease and more than 40 since they did the same with drugs. There's been a lot of research since then devoted to effective methods for curtailing illegal drug use and treating drug abuse. Publicly shaming drug users or bullying those most in need of help isn't one of them.

The actions of the East Liverpool Police Department were incredibly insensitive. They were also morally repugnant. In one of the pictures, the woman slumped over in the passenger seat, identified in the department's Facebook post as the mother of the blond-haired boy sitting in a car seat directly behind her, is visibly turning blue. In both pictures, the boy is staring directly at the camera -- which means that the officer who pulled the couple over decided it was more important to snap some money shots before he or she made sure the child didn't witness his mother's death. (Both adults were eventually administered first aid and survived.)

I'm guessing that the same calculus went into the decision not to obscure the child's extremely identifiable face. Sure, having a photo out there could follow him around for the rest of his life -- but it sure as hell is a striking image.

In our legal system, the police don't get to decide guilt and innocence. The ability to convict someone on social media shouldn't make that any less true.

Seth Mnookin is the director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing and the author of several books, including "The Panic Virus" and "Feeding the Monster."