No one will be able to pinpoint the precise moment that it occurred, or offer more than conjecture about the origin of its appearance, but without question a tidal wave of cruelty has spread over discussion of combatting the opioid epidemic, drowning reason, compassion, and empathy.
In late June of 2017, Middleton, Ohio, city councilman, Dan Picard, suggested a way to combat Ohio’s growing opioid overdose problem: he proposed a “three-strike rule” for calls to 911 concerning opioid overdoses. I don’t want to misstate Mr. Picard’s proposal, so here’s the way he explained it: the first two times a person overdoses, that person would have to pay back every cent of the cost of emergency medical service by performing community service; however, if the person overdoses a third time, but has not completed the community service, an ambulance will not respond to the emergency call.
Put simply, Mr. Picard has proposed to knowingly let people die who are the subject of an overdose call if they have made two prior calls, and haven’t completed community service. I will state Mr. Picard’s plan in even simpler terms so as to be clear: his solution to the opioid epidemic is to let people who have overdosed on opiates die.
Apart from being unimaginably cruel, an inquiry into Mr. Picard’s (who is, on a related note, not seeking reelection to the city council) plan by one news organization suggested it might make little to no difference at all. According to the (Middleton) Fire Department, only 15% of overdose (calls to 911) are for people who had multiple overdoses. Meaning, 85% of calls to 911 in Middleton, Ohio, for drug overdoses are for first-time overdoses. (See: National Public Radio, Around the Nation, “As Opioid Overdoses Bleed City’s Budget, Councilman Proposes Stopping Treatment,” June 29, 2017.)
Mr. Picard’s plan is also not likely legal, and is certainly not ethical. EMS and other emergency personnel have a moral obligation to respond to emergency calls, regardless of frequency. Additionally, if one believes substance abuse is a disease (as the majority of the medical community now does), questions arise as to whether emergency personnel can refuse to treat a specific disease based on the frequency of calls concerning said disease. Consider Mr. Picard’s proposal in the context of any other illness: the solution to beating cancer is to let everyone with cancer die; the solution to HIV/AIDS is to let anyone who is positive for HIV or AIDS die; etc. The cruelty and complete disregard for human life required to make such a proposal is unimaginable. (Additionally, if Mr. Picard is a religious man, I wonder what he believes entitles him to play Creator and decide who lives and dies?)
It would be easy to say Mr. Picard is an outlier, and that most people are capable of compassion, empathy, etc. when discussing how to manage the opioid epidemic. He is not, however, alone.
In late July of 2017, Judge Sam Benningfield of Tennessee decided America desperately needed to hear his take on the opioid problem. (I use this phrasing intentionally: had you ever heard of Dan Picard of Middleton, Ohio, or Judge Sam Benningfield of Tennessee before this? How many news stories took either man as subject before their controversial 2017 comments? Hmm…) Judge Benningfield enacted a standing order permitting inmates to have their jail sentences shortened by 30 days if they agreed to have a vasectomy or birth control implant. Judge Benningfield’s program is targeting opioid and other drug users.
Not unlike Mr. Picard’s desire to play Death, Judge Benningfield has decided he wants to be a part of all of the citizens of Tennessee’s sex lives. (“All of” because a drug user who signs up for the program might well have a partner who is not a drug user—“all of” is not an overstatement.) While Judge Benningfield’s plan is senseless like Mr. Picard’s, it is not uniquely so. In the 1940’s, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down an Oklahoma law permitting involuntary sterilization as a punishment for criminal offenses. Roughly 30 years ago, several states tried the same thing as Judge Benningfield—to offer women reduced or no jail time in exchange for birth control—only to have the measures fail to pass.
However, birth control has, in fact, been used as option in lieu of jail time in some states previously. What this means, in effect, is that Judge Benningfield’s plan is likely not unconstitutional (hard to imagine, but…) but does raise serious concerns about Judge Benningfield’s understanding of genetics, human behavior, privacy, and a host of other topics.
Further, the Judge says his program is to better the lives of the defendants who agree to be sterilized: “This gives them a chance to get their feet on the ground and make something of themselves.” How this does so is unclear. It is an easily proved fact that birth control does not, and will not, stop a person from using drugs. Sterilizing drug users will not cause them to stop using drugs, and thus, will not “give them a chance to get their feet on the ground and make something of themselves.” To do that, treatment, among other things, is needed—not merely the absence of a child.
If the argument then is that the measure is done strictly for the benefit of the child—which, to be clear, is absolutely NOT what Judge Benningfield is saying—it should be noted that modern genetic understanding provides that criminality (disposition towards criminal behavior) is not a trait that can be passed genetically. Yes, it would prevent a statistically insignificant number of babies from being born addicted to drugs. But criminality is widely believed to be caused by environment, socioeconomic factors, and a host of other, non-genetic variables.
I think what Mr. Picard and Judge Benningfield are expressing—albeit with all the eloquence, and none of the intelligence of, a 3 year-old throwing a tantrum—is frustration with the opioid epidemic. Without question, Ohio and Tennessee have been decimated by the opioid epidemic. Middleton, Ohio, has already reported 600 or so overdoses in 2017—more than in all of 2016. Tennessee, you may recall, is currently suing pharmaceutical companies for the cost of the opioid epidemic to the state by—no joke—alleging the pharmaceutical companies are drug dealers under Tennessee law.
Increasingly, families are being affected by the opioid epidemic, and no family or class of people—not you, not me; none of us—is exempted. And it IS frustrating, as little seems to have been done to address the epidemic, and the problem is, and will continue, to get worse. If you have read my blog over the past several years, you would correctly assume that I, too, am frustrated by it (although, my frustration also comes from people like Picard and Judge Benningfield…) But frustration cannot be, and should never be, justification for cruelty. And what Picard and Judge Benningfield are inviting here is unparalleled cruelty, plain and simple.