Advocates for Overdose Victims Ask Legislators to Override Veto

Andrew Kitchenman | December 6, 2012 | Health Care
Christie seeks study instead of bill limiting liablity for those who help drug abusers in emergencies

Alice Silverman will never know why the owner of the restaurant where her son Daniel died of a heroin overdose didn’t call police sooner, but she wants to make sure that no one in that position will face legal repercussions from calling 9-1-1.

“Maybe he was afraid that he was going to get in trouble somehow,” for making an emergency call the night the 19-year-old died in October 2006, Silverman said.

Alice Silverman holds two photos of her son Daniel, who died of a heroin overdose when he was 19.

Silverman is a parent and a member of an advocacy group urging legislators to override Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of a bill it has sponsored, the “Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act.”

The bill would grant protection from arrest to those who possessed or used drugs and who sought emergency assistance for overdose victims. For those found guilty of other drug offenses, making an emergency call would be considered a mitigating factor in sentencing under the bill.

Christie conditionally vetoed the bill on Oct. 5, replacing the bill’s language with a call for the state Division of Criminal Justice to study the issue of drug overdose reporting and to report back within 18 months.

Christie wrote in his veto message that the bill “fails to carefully consider all the interests that must be balanced when crafting immunities to the protections provided in our criminal laws. Thus, although the bill addresses perceived impediments to reporting drug overdoses, the proposal fails to consider the existing approaches to deterrence, public safety, prevention of violence, and the many social problems that accompany the rampant proliferation of drug distribution and use.”

Christie said a more practical approach is to “address these issues comprehensively and holistically, rather than by simply removing criminal liability and exposure to punitive measures.”

The bill, like any that has been conditionally vetoed, would have to be passed by the Legislature again in order to become a law.

Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, expressed disappointment with Christie’s veto. She said passing the bill would save some of the lives of residents who would otherwise die from overdoses.

“We just don’t think there’s any reason to do an 18-month study; the issue’s been studied and other states have passed this legislation,” Scotti said. “In 18 months another 1,000 people will have died of overdose, so we just think they should just move forward with the (original) bill.”

The bill received broad bipartisan support in the Assembly, which passed it 67-8 on May 24. It was a closer vote in the Senate, which passed it 21-10 on Aug. 20, with only two Republicans, Senators Diane B. Allen (R-Burlington) and Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset), voting in favor.

After holding a press conference on Monday, parents of overdose victims distributed roses to lawmakers, attaching the name of a victim to each flower and asking the legislators to support a veto override.

“We had more names than we had roses,” said Silverman, a Maple Shade resident. In the six years since her son’s overdose death, she has learned from hundreds of parents of other overdose victims that drug users frequently overdose in the presence of other people who could have helped them.

“We exchange stories, because when you lose a kid, you tend to gravitate towards people like yourself because you always think as a parent, what more could I have done or what did I do wrong,” Silverman said. “Inevitably, we tell each other our stories and nine out of 10 times, their son or daughter passed away as a result of friends fearing incarceration, and just leaving the kid there to die.”

Fellow parent Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood, said her son Salvatore, who died at age 26 in September 2010, could have benefited if the person he was with at the time of his overdose had called 9-1-1.

“No one wants the police to think they’re part of it,” DiRenzo said.

DiRenzo expressed frustration that so few Republican senators voted for the bill when it passed, adding that the odds of an override of the governor’s veto are remote.

“I’m sure they’re not going against him, which is sad to me because this should not be a political thing,” she said.

The Rev. John Stabeno, founder of addiction services organization The Prodigal House Foundation, said he has known many overdose victims who died because an acquaintance didn’t call for emergency responders, as well as many who lived because someone did make the call.

“They worry about the consequences for themselves before they worry about the impact of death, the permanence of it,” Stabeno said. His organization is based in Washington Township, Gloucester County.

While Stabeno said he agreed with much of what Christie said in his veto message, he wished that Christie had struck a different balance.

“I would always err on the side of caution and save a life first,” Stabeno said, adding that he would prefer that the state pass the law first and then review whether it was beneficial after 18 months, rather than studying the issue for 18 months.