ST. GEORGE — On average in Washington County around 25 people die per year from drug overdoses. Statewide, overdoses are the number one accidental cause of death – causing three times more deaths than car accidents. A new bill recently passed into law aims to tackle this epidemic by granting a sort of immunity to “good Samaritan” drug users who are too afraid to report overdoses for fear that they will be prosecuted themselves for being on drugs.
Signed by the governor in March, these new “Overdose Reporting Amendments” give immunity to any good Samaritan who reports an overdosing victim in good faith and then continues to cooperate with rescue personnel. In short, if the good Samaritan follows two conditions – stays with the victim and cooperates with police – they will not be charged for being under the influence themselves or for possessing drugs.
“Any incentive that we can give people to call and at least get some medical attention to people who are suffering an overdose is a good thing,” Washington County Deputy Attorney Ryan Shaum said.
Although he hasn’t had a chance to thoroughly study the specific legislation himself, Shaum was aware of it and said that the county attorney’s office knows of situations in Washington County when overdoses have gone unreported because people are too afraid to call for help because they think they will get in trouble.
In Washington County, between 2008 and 2012 there were 125 confirmed unintentional poisoning deaths caused by drugs, according to Utah Department of Health statistics. Of those deaths, 68 of them occurred in the City of St. George.
The vast majority of poisoning deaths were from prescription pain killers, Southwest Utah Department of Health Public Information Officer David Heaton said.
Statewide, there were 502 drug poisoning deaths in in 2012 alone – the highest overdose death toll in Utah history. Of those, 323 were from prescription drugs.
Across Utah, most of the overdose deaths are from opiates. Oxycodone is the top culprit, followed closely by methadone and hydrocodone, according to the Department of Health.
In 2002, the number of overdose deaths caught Utah’s attention when it surpassed motor vehicle deaths across the state. Since then, drug deaths have continued to rise, and in 2012, the number of drug overdose deaths had almost tripled that of motor vehicle deaths.
Over 90 percent of these overdose deaths happen in the drug user’s home, Heaton said. Now, with help from these new “good Samaritan” amendments, if there is someone else in the home with the drug user, lives could potentially be saved, Rep. Carol Moss, the bill’s sponsor said during the legislative sessions.
The term “immunity” has two major conditions that were explained by Moss.
First the good Samaritan must stay with the individual who is experiencing the overdose until police or emergency personnel arrive.
Second, the good Samaritan must cooperate with personnel by giving them information about the overdosing individual, such as quantity and type of drugs.
However, there’s one catch: The immunity is void if the good Samaritan has committed other crimes besides simple drug use or possession – for example if they were selling drugs to the overdose victim. But, if other crimes besides drug use or possession of drugs were committed there’s still a possibility for their charges to be reduced. If they were committing other crimes, as Moss put it, “acting in good faith” will be seen in court as a mitigating factor – which means their charges may be reduced or their sentencing minimized though they may not have immunity.
We don’t want to give immunity to drug dealers. If other crimes are being committed such as assault, selling drugs or theft, they would not be immune from prosecution but their sentence might lessen their further charges.
What is Immunity?
If the two conditions listed above are followed, and they have not committed other crimes besides drug use or simple drug possession, then they get immunity. Immunity means that upon trial, the evidence that might incriminate the good Samaritan can’t be used against them if they choose to assert their good faith. Just like with an assault case, if the defendant can prove that it was in their own defense, their assault charges cannot be used against them during the prosecution. This is a common loophole in certain cases like assault and is typically referred to as an affirmative defense.
With Utah’s new Overdose Reporting Amendments, lawmakers are basically saying: ‘We will not use evidence of your own drug use (or possession) in this situation against you,’ Shaum said.
One concern initially about these amendments was that potential good Samaritans won’t report overdoses in fear that Police will target their residence. But Moss said that if this law is followed correctly by law enforcement, these good Samaritans should not be targeted.
Legislative general session 2014
Laws similar to these, sometimes called “overdose protection acts,” have been accepted in 16 states across the nation to date, Moss said.
On January 30, Utah’s Overdose Reporting Amendments, House Bill 11, passed the House 74-0 with 1 not voting. On February 21, the bill passed the Senate 24-0 with 5 not voting.
Note: From Southern Utah, Sens. Ralph Okerlund, David Hinkins, Steve Urquhart and Evan Vickers all voted for the bill, as did Reps. V. Lowry Snow, Michael Noel, John Westwood, Don Ipson, Brad Last and Jon Stanard.
- Prescription drug fact sheet
- Use only as directed, Utah’s prescription drug abuse prevention campaign
- Utah’s prescription drug safe disposal drop of locations
- The full text of the new Overdose Reporting Amendments, HB11, can be found here
- The Harm Reduction Project, a non-profit organization to help those directly impacted by drug abuse
- Fighting addiction, promoting recovery in Southern Utah; community events and resources
- Recovery Day unites community in battling addiction with support
- Heroin for sale on St. George Craigslist
- Smith’s, DEA host drive to gather unused prescription drugs
- Council considers drug arrests, zoning, public safety concerns
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