911 bill concerning heroin overdoses clears committee

Because of the burgeoning problem with heroin overdoses, a state Senate panel advanced legislation Tuesday that would exempt the person calling for help from criminal prosecution on drug possession charges.

State Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, said often fear of being arrested will keep a fellow drug user from phoning police or emergency personnel when the person he or she is with overdoses.

Legislation similar to Senate Bill 422 has been passed by 14 states, the latest being Georgia.

Broome said the number of drug overdoses in Louisiana tripled from 1999 to 2013. East Baton Rouge Parish alone had a sevenfold increase from five deaths in 2012 to 35 in 2013, according to the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office.

Broome told the state Senate Committee on Judiciary C that her bill doesn’t address the factors underlying the increase.

But she found, as other lawmakers discovered in other states, that the number of deaths would decrease if 911 good Samaritan laws covered individuals who witness drug overdoses.

Fearing they themselves might get arrested on drug charges, the witnesses routinely refuse to dial 911 or delay seeking help from police or emergency personnel, she said.

Fear of criminal prosecution is the No. 1 reason why people fail to seek emergency help, Broome said.

She cited a study by Columbia University and New York Academy of Medicine researchers that calculated as few as 10 percent of the individuals who witness a drug overdose call for emergency medical services, depending on the situation.

A University of Washington study from 2011 found that 88 percent of the people who use opioids said they would be less afraid and more likely to call 911 in the event of an overdose.

“This law would alleviate the fear of witnesses to a drug overdose by protecting them from prosecution,” Broome said, adding that SB422 would not protect witnesses from prosecution for other offenses, such as selling or trafficking drugs, just ensure that witnesses who possess drugs don’t use their fear of arrest as a reason not to quickly phone first responders.

Broome said the legislation was not aimed at addressing why heroin is more in use these days.

Logan C. Kinamore, of the group No OD Baton Rouge, said the increase in heroin use is not related to rolling back the stringent punishments for possessing the drugs.

Physicians had been fairly free with prescribing drugs made from opiates, Kinamore said. Then the medical community changed its prescription guidelines. He said a whole class of people “legally became addicts.”

But these pills, such as oxycodone hydrochloride, often cost $30 each in a drug store and require a prescription.

Heroin goes for less than $10, thanks to the efficiency of drug cartel smuggling operations, and is available on many street corners, even within sight of the State Capitol.

Additionally, the heroin being sold these days is more pure but not standardized, so that the same-sized dose taken today with no problems could cause an overdose tomorrow, Kinamore said.

Broome had hoped to amend the legislation to allow the wide distribution of Narcan, a drug that can reverse the impact of an opiate overdose.

Basically, heroin and other opiates slow a body’s functions to the point where they stop working altogether. Narcan can be administered as a shot to a muscle or inhaled through the nose. If administered during the first three to five minutes, the person should easily survive.

The amendment had hoped to allow police, emergency medical technicians, even people in the community, to administer the drug without a physician’s say-so.

But several members of the committee, led by state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, argued that the amendment’s wording could be too permissive, essentially allowing the drug peddler an opportunity to avoid prosecution by also administering Narcan.

“I see a prospect of abuse,” White said. “I have heroin in this hand, and I have the antedote in this hand.”

Broome withdrew the amendment, and the panel advanced SB422 to the full Senate without objection.