Christie, Legislature Agree on Measure Aimed at Reducing Overdose Deaths

Andrew Kitchenman | April 30, 2013 | Health Care
Callers to 9-1-1, those who administer overdose antidote will now get immunity

A new “Good Samaritan” law grants immunity from drug-possession arrests to those who call 9-1-1 to report overdoses or who give an antidote to overdose victims.

Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature reached a bipartisan agreement on the bill, S-2082, in what was a victory for the families of overdose victims who had been lobbying for the measure.

Both legislative chambers passed the bill yesterday after Christie had issued a conditional veto of the bill, which was originally focused only on protecting those who administer naloxone ), an antidote for those who have overdosed on heroin and other opioids.

In his veto statement, Christie asked that the Legislature add to the naloxone bill elements of an earlier bill focused on limiting the liability of those who call 9-1-1 to help overdose victims.

New Jersey became the 12th state to enact a “good Samaritan” law that aims to encourage those who are with people who overdose to seek medical assistance. Supporters of the law cited cases in which people didn’t seek medical assistance because they were concerned about being prosecuted for drug possession.

Moorestown resident Susan Howland said she believed the law would have made a difference in saving the life of her brother, Richard Howland, who died from a heroin overdose in 1999 in South River.

“I’m thrilled beyond belief,” said Howland, who said the person her brother was with when he overdosed prevented neighbors from assisting him. Instead, the person hid her brother’s body, which wasn’t discovered for seven months.

Public awareness is essential for the law to be effective, according to advocates of the measure. While funding for public outreach wasn’t included, the Drug Policy Alliance is expected to promote awareness of the legislation.

Rosanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the alliance, said the new law didn’t have everything her organization wanted but included the most important provisions, including protections for those who are found to have violated parole or probation for drug possession offenses. A protection for those who violate restraining orders was not included in the final bill, but Scotti described that as a “second-tier” protection.

Scotti called the law “critically important,” adding that it will save lives.

“It’s a really good bill with teeth that allows for increased access to naloxone and the Good Samaritan protection, so this is really a triumph of good public health policy and bipartisanship,” Scotti said.

The Senate held a session just to vote on the conditional veto, so that when the Assembly approved the measure in the afternoon, it immediately became law.

“Everybody worked really hard to come to an agreement,” Scotti said.

In October, Christie issued a conditional veto of a bill protecting 9-1-1 callers, asking that the Legislature give the state Division of Criminal Justice 18 months to study the issue of overdose reporting.

At that time, Christie wrote in his veto message that “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.”

The Legislature didn’t act on that recommendation, but administration officials and legislators continued to discuss including some of the bill’s provisions in the naloxone bill, leading to yesterday’s agreement.

Bill sponsor Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) said the administration made “thoughtful” changes to the bill and that it was the result of hard work by both sides.

Sen. Richard J. Codey (D-Essex), another sponsor, said the bill would benefit residents “that are never going to thank us, or make a political contribution.”

The Senate passed the final version of the bill on a bipartisan 24-1 vote, while the Assembly passed it 68-2 with six abstentions.

Assembly sponsor Daniel R. Benson (D-Mercer and Middlesex) said some law- enforcement officials have already said that they understand and support the purpose of the law.

New Jersey State Nurses Association CEO Patricia Barnett said her organization would be informing thousands of its members about the law.

“The reality is that we want to see peoples’ lives saved,” Barnett said, adding the association supported the concept behind the measure.

It may take years before the state has a definitive view of whether the law will have lowered overdose deaths.

Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute, emphasized the importance of informing both the public and law enforcement about the law. He noted that while the state of Washington became the second state to enact a “Good Samaritan” law in 2010, people are still dying becaue people failed to report overdoses. He said it’s been difficult to determine the effect of the laws on the number of overdose deaths due to the challenges in designing a study of the issue, as well as the shifting demographics of opioid overdose victims.

Banta-Green added that there has been a national shift in deaths from opioids, with deaths from prescription opioids dropping the past few years while heroin deaths have been increasing. Heroin use has also been spreading among younger people in less urban areas, he said.

“For the broader political and public health purpose, they are quite obviously valuable,” Banta-Green said of the “Good Samaritan” laws.