The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 10, 2013

Bill protects witnesses of drug overdoses

HARRISBURG — Witnesses to a drug overdose would be able to call 911 without facing charges of drug use or possession once police arrive under a bill that passed the state Senate unanimously on Tuesday.

Fourteen other states have laws that protect witnesses to overdoses, passed in hopes of addressing what the Centers for Disease Control calls an “epidemic” level of drug deaths.

Tuesday’s bill is the latest piece of legislation in Pennsylvania responding to a growing problem of illicit drug use, aggravated by prescription drug abuse. Health experts note that overdoses now claim more lives than auto accidents, nationally and in Pennsylvania.

There were 1,909 deaths from accidental drug poisonings and 1,286 deaths in car crashes in Pennsylvania in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the Department of Transportation and Department of Health.

The state House this fall also passed legislation to expand prescription drug monitoring to crack down on pharmacy-shopping by addicts.

That bill is now awaiting action in the Senate, while the bill shielding overdose witnesses must go before the House.

In addition, the House Human Services committee will hold hearings next month on a resolution calling on the attorney general to investigate the proliferation of prescription drug abuse in the state.

The bill with Good Samaritan provisions for witnesses to overdoses was suggested by Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan. He began to lobby for the legislation after being approached by the family of an overdose victim, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester.

The issue personally affects other legislators, such as Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Northumberland.

His 34-year-old niece, Erika Smith of Elysburg, died of a heroin overdose on Nov. 24.

Masser described the drug problem as a “cancer” and said he hopes the Legislature quickly comes up with a strategy to combat the crisis.

“What we are doing is not working,” Masser said. “Every day we don’t address it, we are losing more kids.”

“The answers aren’t easy,” he said. “If they were, we’d have come up with them already.”

Two men have been charged in connection with Smith’s death. The Shamokin News-Item reported Smith took the drugs between 2 and 4 p.m., but medical help was not summoned until 10:30 p.m.

Masser said he’s not sure if the bill passed Tuesday could have helped by getting medical assistance to Smith quicker.

“It might have,” he said.

After Washington passed a law protecting Good Samaritans who report drug overdoses, researchers at the University of Washington interviewed drug users and found 88 percent said they knew about the law and were more likely to seek help because of it. Forty-two percent said they had been present during a serious overdose in the prior year.

Such legislation is not without controversy. It was approved in New Jersey only after Republican Gov. Chris Christie initially vetoed the legislation, saying that state needed to take a broader approach to the problem. Christie reversed course only after intense lobbying that included the efforts of rocker Jon Bon Jovi.

In most states the shield law is accompanied by legislation providing for wider use of Naxalone, a drug that can be used to halt an overdose. Pennsylvania’s shield law does not include provisions to make the antidote more easily available. But Arneson said Senate leaders “would be open” to discussing the addition of Naxalone language as the bill moves through the House.

Deb Beck, executive director of the Pennsylvania Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Association, said the measures now being considered by the Legislature are necessary to save lives. She noted cases of drug addicts who fled to leave an acquaintance to die of an overdose – or dropped someone off outside a hospital without alerting anyone that the victim was there.  

Beck said the state cannot ignore the need for treatment, particularly if prescription drug monitoring is toughened. In other states, cracking down on pharmacy shopping drove addicts to turn to heroin, Beck said.

The skyrocketing numbers of people using heroin is already inflated because many people start using prescription drugs and turn to heroin because it’s less expensive and easier to get, said state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, who chairs the House human services committee.

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