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.

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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.”

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  • Yes there is a huge problem, and no democrat wants to do anything about it. There is one good solution: Build The Wall!

    Its almost impossible to grow poppy in secret like you can with marijuana. All of the illegal opioids in this country come through our borders, and mostly over land through our border with mexico. Stop the traffic, stop the drug use.

    If you want to end this poisoning of a generation, then I suggest you call your federal democratic representatives and tell them to stop being obstructionists and start doing something that will help their constituents.

  • it only takes a second for the officers to snap a photo of these individuals slumped over in the vehicle. The “money shot” you condemn is a tool the police officers wisely use to raise awareness to the drug problem in their community. Are you shaming the police for doing their job? Those people passed out in the car should be ashamed. They will get their chance to defend themselves in court. Just because the department posted their photo to social media does not mean they found guilty by a court of law. Law enforcement- they had every right to snap that photo and use it. These people were out in public putting a child in danger.

  • The writer’s allegation that the photo was public shaming is way overboard. The intent and effect of the published photograph was to draw unforgettable attention to the problems facing East Liverpool, Ohio, a blue-collar, rust-belt community in the throes of fentanyl addiction. The addicts themselves are only a part of the problem, as the accompanying article made clear. The other element highlighted is the effect of addiction on the children of the addicts. That was deemed far more important than preserving the anonymity of the addicts.

  • Addiction does not have to do with a persons willpower to use or not to use. Addiction is a brain disease that can be treated as can cancer, depression, aids, ext.. An addict struggles every day for the rest of their life to remain and live in recovery. We are not weak minded. We are not weak hearted. We are some of the strongest toughest warriors you’ll ever meet because we have been to hell and back and have kissed death on the cheek! And yet those of us living in long term recovery are still here winning over our disease every day to live happy having to be among you hating unsupportive ignorant people. Shame on you. We need support so more of us can come out of hiding and get better. We already suffer enough shame, guilt, embarrassment, loneliness within ourselves. We don’t need you to bash us anymore.

    • I As a Mother of a Heroin Daughter and a Grandparent who has custody of a Grandchild for the last 15 months due to Mothers addiction; Am Deeeply sad By this video. But also feel it needs to be seen. We have an epidemic of Heroin use. And Education and Awareness needs to be seen and heard. Its Real and Heartbreaking for the one addicted and also for the children that are exposed to this Disease.

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