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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  • No, I can’t agree with you on this. This woman took custody of that little boy just 6 weeks prior to this photo. She is his grandmother. If it as as you say then she had no business trying to fool anyone into thinking she was capable of providing a stable home for this child. This isn’t about the disease its about the selfish actions of users who don’t care about anyone or anything other than their high. The easiest way to recover is to not need to.

  • Hey I got a idea get these people to say who there dealers are an bust them,cause shaming addicts an talking about it not going to stop it,wasting money as always on a fix that doesn’t fix any thing

  • I believe public shaming is somewhat necessary. I know someone who has totaled 4 vehicles, once with a child, unbuckled, in there with him. His parents and him kept it quiet, even an overdose that resulted in a shot of narcan. When I asked him, he seemed ashamed to talk about it at first. Now he blab about it as some sort of accomplishment. If the public would have known and it affected his job, his home, his family and friends, mayb, just mayb, his conscience might stop him, not from shooting dope, but possibly from getting behind the wheel next time. Consequences…that’s one of the solutions. Mayb someone would more likely seek treatment if they know they will lose their job because their boss found out, or their children removed from them. If these things don’t inspire an addict to get help…if an overdose and a shot of narcan doesn’t, then what else will? Addicts are reclusive…bring it out in the open and then mayb they have a chance to seek or reached out to for help. As for the photo “following” the boy around…there will be 10,000 other things that society will be complaining about tomorrow and the pic of this child will be a long forgotten thought. And mayb he will remember and not turn out to be an addict…here’s the thing though, this child has seen too much. Start him in therapy, get him an early start to preventing turning out like his parents. Obviously we know what he’s been thru already, don’t wait till he’s 16 huffing butane and pushing dope to seek help for him. I agree with the post, sorry, but I do.

  • “Publicly shaming drug users or bullying those most in need of help isn’t one of them.” But it is. Whether it be the ‘War on Drugs’ or ‘Truth’ tobacco advertising in the last fifty years, you would know that the government takes credit for shaming people into submission. Not all of us are wired that way to submit to the status quo, seeing marketing than more than a picture.

  • I was on the fence about the department’s choice in publicizing this photo. Addiction isn’t cured by public shaming but another thought was that if it can scare our youth from ever wanting to try this drug then amen.

  • I think theres a back story here not heard. What if they shot up because there was no beds availible. No room that day in a treatment program . A doctor who just wants to prescribe suboxon but not cure. I know first hand the trials of getting someone clean. Everyday calling for a bed and hearing call tomarrow at eleven, calling and still being full. No matter how they got there when someone wants help, they should get it. I lost my wife and best friend to an od. She fought to stay clean. She did not want to be an addict. She got there through over perscribs percs after a car accident. After a year they cut her Off with no weenING or treatment. When I see that photo all I see is someone who had been failed by the system. The little boy ESPECIALLY. my wife was a strong minded tough person widiled down by a system disigned to not help but make money on a person who just wants help. One word in this whole thing stigma

  • The photo I saw had the child’s face obscured. I am sorry for your own addiction and its concomitant problems. Sounds like you’ve managed to break free of the cycle of drugs you were caught up in. However, when it comes to addictions, your sense of dignity takes a back seat to a child’s needs and safety. Addicted parents are unfit to care for their own children, and this photo clearly illustrates that fact. Society needs to see it. Drug addiction is bad enough, but with every criminal in the news, society generally fails to picture the children. They don’t see the child crying at school because a parent is in jail. They don’t know that many children of criminals are homeless, bouncing from couch to couch, relative to relative. They may not even picture criminals as having children. Your addiction is not just about you, your loneliness, your claw marks. It is about innocent lives, helpless lives that you are also ruining, and who society needs to take care of. So, sorry. If addicts are going to put themselves out there on public display, then a picture of them doing so is not morally wrong. Driving a car while high, with a child in the back seat, is morally wrong. Nobody is shaming them. They have shamed themselves.

    • Since you claim your priority here is the child’s needs and safety, would you feel the same way if this was a photo of two adults and a child who had been involved in a car accident (but no substances were involved)? Let’s say with that situation, too, the cops were more interested in getting a photo rather than removing the child and ensuring, again, they didn’t have to witness their parent’s death.

      How would you feel if the child’s face wasn’t blurred, and you had to look at the shock and horror on their face from what they’d witnessed? But, don’t worry, the cops are just warning the public of the real dangers that can come of not wearing a seatbelt. And they weren’t wearing a seatbelt, so they got what they deserved – they shamed themselves! Even if the parents in the car accident scenario were in no way at fault, how is the CHILD in that situation any different? Both totally innocent parties that have been a part of a traumatic situation, and their suffering doesn’t need to go viral for people to understand the gravity of the situation.

      This situation reminds me so much of the transgendered bathroom debate. Everyone masks their hatred with the excuse of “but the children!” when that’s not what’s going on. If you wouldn’t be comfortable with a child in a car accident becoming the face of motor vehicle safety (without their parents’ consent), then you shouldn’t be comfortable with this.

    • “Sigh” –are you kidding? This kid lives it this horror *every*day*of*his*life. And you’re concerned about how people would feel looking at the horror on his face? OMG, let’s not actually *see* how heartbreaking this child’s world is. No, that would be awful, wouldn’t it? You’re amazing, Sigh.

  • I agree entirely. I’m a wordly over thinker and een though I saw the point the officer stated was to help, only sank in to the ones already judging at the “Gallows”. No one can ever shame an addict mor than the addict themselves. Heroin releases dopamine which causes a feeling of upheoria, same feeling from falling in love winning an award or eating chocolate. So why would an addict keep using knowing the effects? Because a part of them longs for happiness so badly they are willing to take the chance. Maybe we should see the signs before they get to that first use. Notice if loved ones are upset or alone feeling and maybe they won’t be left alone with their thoughts to consider turning to a false state of “happy”.

  • Not appropriate at all for the police to post a picture like that! Busy snapping photos while someone is dying in front of their child. Yes shame on the parents, but shame on the police!! They are supposed to help people. Her ion is a huge epidemic everywhere

    • Police personnel do take photos on a scene and one cannot assume no one was not getting help as you state. Often there is multiple personnel waiting for further instruction, backup, paramedics, etc.

      Especially in this day and age, visual documentation is not unusual.

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