State lawmakers seek immunity for those in drug-related emergencies
A bill that would provide legal protection to 9-1-1 callers in drug-related emergencies has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with similar legislation now awaiting approval from the House Judiciary Committee.
The Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act would grant those seeking medical assistance certain immunities from arrest or prosecution. To do so, it outlaws law enforcement from obtaining evidence as the result of a call for a drug-related emergency such as an overdose.
The legislation has received support from the Rhode Island medical community as well as state lawmakers. Representative Frank Ferri (District 22) introduced one version to the House, and Senator Rhoda Perry (District 3) brought a companion bill to the Senate.
However, in an emailed statement, the Attorney General’s Office strongly disapproved of the act’s language.
“We do not think drug dealers or those who maintain a common narcotics nuisance should be given outright immunity from their actions if they seek medical assistance,” read the email.
For the city of Warwick, with the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Rhode Island, the bill may be a saving grace because most of Warwick’s overdoses come by way of prescription drugs that abused people maintaining a common narcotics nuisance the way that heroin for-profit people do.
“Drug overdoses,” which occur most often with opiates, “claim more lives than suicides, homicides and traffic accidents combined,” says Dr. Josiah D. Rich, professor of medicine and community health at Brown Medical School.
In order to pass the Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act, the bill’s sponsors on Smith Hill expect they must get past the objections of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office and convince opponents that the law is intended to save lives and not to stymie law enforcement.
“The bottom line is that we aim to save lives,” Representative Frank Ferri stated in an interview at the State House on Tuesday.
“If you’re worried about getting busted for drugs, you’re probably not going to call 9-1-1 to save someone’s life. We are losing hundreds to drug overdoses. If people don’t receive immunity, then people are going to continue to die,” said Steve DeToy, director of government and public affairs at the Rhode Island Medical Society.
DeToy has been working with lawmakers on the legislation for more than three years. He calls the increased incidence of drug overdose deaths “a crisis.”
The general public and the medical community are not fully informed of the true scope of the overdose issue either, according to Dr. Rich.
“Drug addiction is a growing and terrible problem, as are overdose deaths. Overdosing is a medical emergency, an accident, and not all physicians are aware of it,” Dr. Rich said.
A two-year study of the state conducted by Rhode Island Hospital recorded 14 drug overdose deaths in Warwick in 2009, currently the highest overdose death rate in the state. The study also found prescription drug-opiate mixtures, as well as drug-alcohol, to be the downfall of many overdose victims. In such cases, alcohol greatly increases the risk of death.
Kent Hospital in Warwick admitted 66 overdosed patients in 2011. In the first six months of the 2012 fiscal year, the number is already up to 75. Chief Medical Officer of Kent Michael Dacey predicts the hospital to admit up to 120 by the end of the year.
In an April press conference, Kent Hospital reported the admittance of three patients under the age of 26 into the Kent Hospital ER on April 7. By day’s end, only one of these patients survived.
In the wake of these tragedies, Kent Hospital spokesman James Beardsworth officially endorsed the bill.
“The hospital commends the legislation, as it takes an important step in addressing some significant problems that we are currently facing as a whole, and believes it should be applauded,” said Beardsworth.
The Attorney General’s Office showed support for the intent of the bill, but “opposes it due to its breadth,” according to Special Assistant Attorney General Joee Lindbeck. Lindbeck testified in opposition to the bill before the House Judiciary Committee on May 30.
“It would give immunity for possession, delivery or operation of controlled substances or paraphernalia, if the person seeks medical assistance for someone experiencing a drug overdose or other drug-related emergency,” Lindbeck said in her email.
The act virtually absolves those who report overdoses to 9-1-1 but, as DeToy points out, it does little to provide protection after medical care is administered to the victim.
“The caller can be put under surveillance,” he said. “They can’t bust you at that moment for drug-related charges, but they [the police] can come back.”
Another exception includes non-drug related activities—arrest or prosecution can arise from other charges outside of those applying to controlled substances.
“Even if the person is immune for that particular instance, the law will still know who you are,” said Representative Ferri, who sees the bill as an “encouragement to call.”
And of Rhode Island’s concern for drug addicts, DeToy says, “Usually when an officer shows up at an overdose situation, death has already probably occurred. We are trying to save lives.”
The bill’s supporters want to send the message to addicts that no one has to die of an overdose because a fellow user is afraid to call help.
“These are [victims of] primarily illicit prescription drugs. We’re not trying to immunize drug dealers, but instead drug users, addicted people who are sick,” said DeToy.
“We have to get the word out in the community of drug users, that if you’re in an emergency situation, you can get help.”