Bill Would Grant Immunity to Those Who Administer Drug-Overdose Antidote

Andrew Kitchenman | January 25, 2013 | Health Care
Supporters say allowing naloxone to be dispensed would prevent deaths from heroin, other opioids

Those who dispense and administer a medication that counters the effects of overdoses from heroin and other opioids would be given immunity under a bill advancing in the Legislature.

If the Opioid Antidote and Overdose Prevention Act becomes law, New Jersey would join eight other states that allow medical providers to prescribe naloxone and allow people to administer the drug to overdose victims without fear of being prosecuted, according to bill advocates.

The bill, S-2082, would require that prescription recipients get information on how to prevent and recognize overdoses, as well as how to administer the medication and care for the overdose victim. The information would also have to emphasize the importance of calling 911.

At a legislative committee hearing, Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey policy associate Elizabeth Thompson, a former heroin addict and a supporter of the bill, said she had overdosed several times and watched others overdose.

“Every heroin addict I’ve ever encountered knows exactly what naloxone is and has a general idea of how to use it,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, most people have the same experience as me, they just have limited or no access to the medication. On the flipside, I know many recovering addicts whose lives were saved by naloxone.”

Thompson she isn’t aware of any other legislation that could effectively reduce the number of overdose deaths in the state.

“The first time I overdosed, I was slapped, shaken and I was dumped in a bathtub and I remember waking up to my boyfriend at the time who was crying in a panic and being furious with him that he hadn’t left me to die,” Thompson said. “You know, today I don’t feel that way. I’m so unspeakably grateful that I’ve been gifted with a chance at recovery and I think that everybody should have this opportunity, that struggles with addiction.”

Thompson described herself as being drug-free for four years and seven months, drawing applause from the audience at the hearing.

Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the state, exceeding traffic fatalities and gun-related deaths.

“These overdoses and these deaths are almost entirely preventable,” Scotti said. “Most people who overdose do not die for several hours after they have taken a drug. They usually die in the presence of others, so there’s ample time for someone to intervene and help.”

Naloxone reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, such as depressed breathing. It has no psychoactive effects, is not a dangerous controlled substance, and is the standard emergency medication for opioid overdoses. Scotti cited a federal Centers for Disease Control report that 50 existing naloxone-distribution programs had reversed more than 10,000 overdoses.

“With very little training, lay individuals can do this and are doing this around the country,” Scotti said.

She noted that national drug policy director Gil Kerlikowske has called for expanded naloxone access.

Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex) voted in favor of the bill, but said drug policy advocates should focus on increased funding for inpatient drug treatment.

“We need beds, we need money for beds,” Rice said. Supporters of the bill agreed that there should also be more funding for inpatient treatment.

Summit lawyer Jill Anne LaZare said her daughter Brooke, who died of a cocaine and heroin overdose on May 8 of last year at the age of 23, could have been helped by the legislation.

“She was an extraordinarily careful person who was always prepared and organized,” LaZare said, adding that her daughter had a card from the state syringe- exchange program.

“I believe that given she had used the needle-exchange program, if the program offered naloxone access and education, Brooke definitely would have been resuscitated and been alive today with the opportunity to beat down whatever demons were plaguing her,” LaZare said.

Diane Conforti of Rumson said her son Michael overdosed and died at home in 2010, at the age of 26.

“I do believe that if naloxone had been available, I would have been aware of it, he would have been aware of it and it might have saved his life,” she said.

Hamilton resident Celeste Diehl, a teacher, said naloxone has no potential for abuse.

“Since receiving naloxone is a very unpleasant experience, it may even provide an individual with the opportunity to reexamine his or her drug use and hopefully make some changes,” she said.

Sen. Diane B. Allen (R-Burlington), who voted to release the bill, said the personal testimony was compelling. “It helps us understand things on a different level,” she said.

Sen. Samuel D. Thompson (R-Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean) asked bill sponsor Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) to consider “tightening” the immunity in the bill so that it would not apply to those who are grossly negligent, making it more like the state law that grants immunity to some who aid victims of traffic accidents. Vitale said he didn’t believe that the overdose situation is similar, but that he would consider the change.

The bill is the second in recent months that has attempted to encourage helping people who have overdosed. The previous bill would have granted immunity to those who report overdoses.

Gov. Chris Christie, who instead proposed that state officials study the issue, conditionally vetoed it. The Legislature hasn’t acted on his proposal, while supporters of the original measure have urged lawmakers to override Christie’s veto.

The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee released that bill on Jan. 14. The Assembly version has been referred to the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee.