Lawmakers weigh bill to address OD deaths
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | January 24,2013
MONTPELIER — More than 70 Vermonters perished last year in drug-related deaths. Now lawmakers are wondering whether fear of prosecution might have cost some of them their lives.
Legislation introduced in the House on Wednesday would extend limited criminal immunity to anyone who seeks medical attention for a drug user experiencing an overdose. Convinced that the threat of prosecution has deterred life-saving calls to 911, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan said minimizing deaths associated with opiate use needs to become a public health imperative.
“In no way do I view this bill as condoning drug use or condoning people sharing drugs,” Donovan told the House Judiciary Committee. “I view this bill as an effort to save people’s lives. It’s very simple.”
While the concept might be simple, executing it in statute will not be. The Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs’ Association has already voiced concerns about the scope of crimes for which offenders would win immunity. And some lawmakers are already bristling at the idea of insulating suppliers from the criminal consequences of their actions.
“The biggest concern ... is the fear that this legislation would preclude the prosecution of someone who legitimately deserved to be prosecuted,” said Bram Kranichfeld, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs’ Association.
But the bill has strong support from many legislators, and key officials in the Shumlin administration, including Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn, say they support the effort.
The legislation guarantees immunity for certain crimes — namely possessing, dispensing or being under the influence of an illicit drug — so long as evidence of those crimes is the result of the offender’s effort to secure emergency medical treatment for someone at risk of an overdose.
The bill also creates what’s known as an “affirmative defense” for more severe crimes, including dispensing a narcotic with death resulting. An affirmative defense doesn’t shield an offender from prosecution for the death of someone to whom he or she gave drugs. However, if the defendant can prove in trial that he was caught only because he was attempting to secure medical care for the dying victim, then the case would be tossed.
The bill also establishes an affirmative defense for the crime of selling drugs.
Donovan first proposed the legislation last summer, in the midst of a hard-fought Democratic primary for attorney general. He lost the election to Bill Sorrell, but is asking lawmakers to proceed with an idea he said will limit fatalities associated with what he calls “the number one public safety and public health issue in the state of Vermont.”
“That’s based on my experience as a prosecutor in the largest city in Vermont,” Donovan said. “The cases that we see, particularly theft cases, burglary cases, robbery cases, inevitably lead to a person who is addicted to opiates and is stealing to feed their opiate habit.”
Rep. Bill Lippert, a Hinesburg Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the so-called “Good Samritan” legislation could be an important piece of a broader effort to curb opiate addiction in Vermont.
Of the 73 drug-related deaths in 2012, 40 involved prescription drugs. Another 32 involved other illicit drugs, including heroin. More than 100 people died in drug-related deaths in 2011.
While beginning a discussion on the bill doesn’t signal the committee’s support “for every aspect of it,” Lippert said, he called the legislation “an important place to start.”
Donovan said the law isn’t designed to protect drug dealers, but to eliminate a fear of authorities that might otherwise prevent a drug user from calling an ambulance for his overdosing friend.
“A lot of people are afraid to act because they’re afraid they’ll get into trouble — it’s human nature,” Donovan said. “You have to incentivize people to want to call the police, to call 911, to bring people to the emergency room without fear of prosecution.”
Commissioner of Health Harry Chen, who threw his support behind the bill Wednesday, said minutes matter when it comes to treating victims of an overdose. Taken in large doses, Chen explained to lawmakers, opiates depress the respiratory system.
“It’s a remarkable thing spending 30 years as an ER physician to see in a person, up close, the effects of narcotics, which is you don’t breathe,” Chen said. “And there’s something pretty eerie about a patient who is in overdose ... and they’re looking at you, blue, and not breathing.”
Chen said emergency rooms are well equipped to treat an overdose, but that they can’t reverse the damage to the brain and other organs that occurs when people wait to call an ambulance. He said the 73 deaths reported last year don’t include people who will suffer permanent brain damage from overdoses.
Rep. Tom Koch, a Barre Town Republican, said he’ll likely support the legislation, but only grudgingly.
“It’s a tough pill for me to swallow — pun intended,” Koch said. “I’m just so sick of dealing with other people’s irresponsibility, and this is just one more example.”