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Viral photo shows the face of heroin crisis America needs to see

The controversy over whether a police department in Ohio should have released a photo of a couple passed out in a car — one of them, a woman, apparently overdosed with heroin — while a four-year-old boy sits in the back seat, misses a key point.

In posting the photo to Facebook, the East Liverpool Police in Ohio performed a service: It showed the hideous face of a crisis in American culture.

Public reaction has ranged from shock and outrage at the adults pictured, to anger at the police for the public shaming of these people who are supposed to be caring for a small child. Many I’ve heard from think it’s bad that the police department who put this child’s picture on display for the world to see.

From my perspective as a practicing lawyer, police advisor, and parent, I don’t agree that releasing such a picture is a mistake. Heroin addiction is a slow-rolling disaster in America. Heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled across the U.S. between 2002 and 2013. In 2014, 10,574 overdose deaths were related to heroin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. We need to see this; we need it to sink in.

I’ve been in and around the criminal justice system for three decades and have seen firsthand: opiate addiction — particularly heroin—has become the deadliest serial killer I’ve seen. Until the turn of the 21st century heroin had seemed like an extinct dinosaur street drug from an era long past. Then, as a young prosecutor I started seeing prescription opiate and heroin cases crossing my desk with alarming frequency.

That’s not surprising when you consider that 78 Americans die every day from an opiate overdose.

I could tell stories for days about the sorry cases I see in court — mostly involving young people. Some are carted off to prison for decades because of a heroin addiction that led to a robbery committed while they were so high that they have no memory of the crime.

I’ve had more than my share of addicted clients die while their court cases were pending. One young person was arrested while unconscious, hanging over a toilet, needle stuck in arm. I could tell you about a phone call I got from someone who was literally dumping an overdose victim in the street because of fear of prosecution if the caller took the victim to the hospital. All of these heroin addicts I dealt with started out abusing prescription opiates — not heroin.

Indeed, the most common scenario I encounter is kids who started by stealing their parents’ (over-prescribed) prescription pain pills and moved on to heroin. Indeed, the National Safety Council has determined that a staggering 99% of primary care physicians routinely over-prescribe addictive opiate medication for longer time periods than the Centers for Disease Control guidelines suggest — which doesn’t help matters.

From what I see, when stealing from Mom or Dad is no longer an option, kids graduate to heroin, which is cheaper and readily available. Heroin abuse is blind to race, gender, age, and socio-economic status. It happens to people of all stripes.

So common has the heroin overdose become in our society, that police increasingly carry the antidote Narcan with them to save lives on the spot — as was the case with the woman in the Ohio picture. A boon, absolutely — but surely our society can do better than allowing addiction illness to rampage while heroic police and emergency workers hope to get there in time with yet another drug to rescue someone on the brink.

Ironically, Narcan itself is also being abused by heroin addicts who see it as a lifeline in case they overdose — a short-term fix for a long-term problem.

So what is the solution? Most states have passed some sort of “medical amnesty” law granting immunity from arrest and prosecution for drug and alcohol offenses when a person seeks medical attention for another person experiencing a drug or alcohol related medical emergency.

Like Narcan, medical amnesty moves the ball down field but doesn’t cross the goal line — of ending this crisis.

We need to confront this strongly and the key is educating the public — particularly young people, parents, and even doctors – about opiate and heroin addiction.

Awareness of the ugly truth is what it will take to bring an end to this societal demon.

So by all means publish the pictures — regardless of any shame or embarrassment it may incidentally cause. They speak volumes of painful truth.

Hopefully everyone seen in this picture will go on to live long and healthy lives and if publicizing these images saves even one person, then the thanks goes to East Liverpool Police Chief John Lane who was absolutely right when he said, “The whole ordeal will help the child in the long run…”

Editor’s note: Philip Holloway, a CNN legal analyst, is a criminal defense lawyer who heads his own firm in Cobb County, Georgia. A former prosecutor and adjunct professor of criminal justice, he is former president of the Cobb County Bar Association’s criminal law section. Follow him on Twitter: @PhilHollowayEsq. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.