With Warwick having one of the highest rates of opiate overdoses in the state, local legislators have drafted a bill that seeks to shield individuals attempting to save another person experiencing an overdose.
Through the Good Samaritan Overdose Protection Act, anyone who renders assistance to someone in a drug overdose situation, whether by calling 911 or administering an opiate antagonist, would be immune from criminal prosecution and civil liabilities. They would not be charged for any crime related to the possession or delivery of a controlled substance, drug paraphernalia or the operation of a drug-involved premises if the evidence for the charge was gained as a result of them seeking or providing medical assistance.
An opioid antagonist is a drug similar to an epipen that binds to the opioid receptors with higher affinity than agonists but does not activate the receptors, effectively blocking the receptor, preventing the human body from making use of opiates and endorphins.
The active solution in an opioid antagonist is commonly known as narcan. The instruments are obtained via prescription.
Dr. Jody Rich, professor of medicine and community health at Brown University, is in favor of the bill. He hopes the legislation brings awareness to the lethal opiate situation, which he said has resulted in more deaths than traffic fatalities, murder and suicide combined within recent years. Further, he said there is an average of three deaths related to overdoses per week throughout Rhode Island.
“This is a very important issue most people don’t know about,” Rich said during a phone interview last week. “We are in the middle of an overdose epidemic, and a lot of that is related to prescription opiates.”
Often, said Rich, fatal overdoses take at least an hour to go into effect, allowing time for people to react and seek medical attention.
The problem is that individuals who are with a drug user experiencing an overdose are scared to alert 911 because they typically were using drugs alongside the person in need of medical attention.
“As illogical as it sounds, people would rather run away because they don’t want to be arrested,” said Rich. “They don’t want to go to jail, lose freedom or have withdrawals. If the bill passes, it will send a powerful message both to drug users and the police. This is a time to not worry about whether or not someone has a warrant. It’s a medical emergency and they need to take care of the person who is dying.”
The bill, introduced to the House Jan. 25 by Representatives Frank Ferri, along with David Bennett, John Edwards, Michael Marcello and Larry Valencia, was heard by the Health, Education and Welfare Committee. Representative Joseph McNamara, who chairs the committee, agrees with Rich and said bringing the issue to the public attention is a vital part of solving the problem and saving lives.
“We have to build an awareness for everybody,” McNamara said in a phone interview Thursday. “Hopefully, it would increase the reporting of these emergencies before they become fatal. It’s a good, good concept.”
As for a cause of the rise in opiate overdoses, McNamara wonders if there’s a correlation between the bad economy and people who are down on their luck looking for some type of escape. Either way, he said it’s no longer an unusual cause of death and has sympathy to users and their loved ones.
“Every individual deserves basic respect, compassion and empathy,” said McNamara. “They have a painful injury and become addicted to a drug. They don’t deserve a death penalty, and that’s what they are getting now. They need treatment and rehabilitation.”
“The purpose of this bill is to save lives,” he said in an interview last week. “It’s helping addicts stay alive.”
Steve Detoy, lobbyist for Rhode Island Medical Society, which helped Ferri compose the bill, feels the same. When asked if he thinks the bill will reduce the number of overdose fatalities, he said, “Absolutely. This is the biggest drug-related issue in the nation.”