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Pennsylvania parents push back against drug criminalization

Two women hug.
Emma Lee
Terri Spina shares a tearful hug at the opening ceremony of the Philadelphia Overdose Memorial Garden at Thomas Paine Plaza in 2022. Spina holds a photo of her daughter, Ginamarie Vicent, who died of an overdose at the age of 31.

About a year before Tyler Cordeiro died of a drug overdose, his mother, Susan Ousterman, said he witnessed his friend die of one after they had used together.

“He was distraught and grieving over his friend,” said Ousterman, who lives in Bucks County. “But he didn’t get to [fully] do that, because he was so terrified he would be arrested for his friend’s death.”

Pennsylvania and other states have Good Samaritan laws that include criminal and legal protections for witnesses who report a drug overdose to 911, but immunity may only apply in specific circumstances or when certain requirements are met.

It means law enforcement and prosecutors may still pursue charges and sentences under drug-induced homicide, drug use and possession, and other drug-related laws.

Now, as some states and cities look to enact harsher penalties or take a more aggressive approach in enforcing existing drug laws, like in Philadelphia, Ousterman and others are fighting against policies that could lead to more incarcerations. Instead, these parents and family members call for solutions that treat the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis.

“As long as we see people who use drugs as criminals, they’re not going to get the services and support that they need,” Ousterman said. “I never in a million years thought that I would be someone here advocating for decriminalization of drugs, but it’s a reality. These people are suffering. They need health [care], not jail.”

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Ousterman’s son had tried and failed to access services before his overdose death in 2020 at 24 years old.

A staggering number of people continue to die from drug overdoses — Pennsylvania recorded 5,158 deaths in 2022, according to state data.

About 400 family members have joined Broken No More and the Drug Policy Alliance to call on lawmakers across the country to prioritize policies that focus on decriminalizing drugs, expanding addiction treatment, supporting harm reduction tools like sterile syringes and more.

At a time when millions of dollars in settlement payouts are flowing into states and cities from national lawsuits with opioid manufacturers and distributors, advocates say there is an opportunity to invest in evidence-based programs that help people with addiction.

But Ousterman believes that policies and strategies that heavily involve law enforcement and the criminal justice system will “make it worse.”

“We demand that our elected officials prioritize saving lives in the midst of this overdose epidemic rather than relying on the old, ineffective drug war playbook,” she said during a recent press conference.

Pennsylvania is set to receive more than $1.07 billion in lawsuit settlement funds, with more money expected from ongoing cases. The money is earmarked for addiction prevention, treatment and recovery support projects.

Members of the state’s Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust, which is responsible for overseeing settlement distribution and spending, have rejected several project ideas — like the use of drug-sniffing dogs on visitors to jails and prisons — that could lead to more arrests and penalties on drug-related charges.

Read more from our partners, WHYY.