The New Jersey Assembly passed the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act (A578/S851), which provides limited legal protection for those who witness a drug overdose and summon medical assistance. The vote was 67 yes, 8 no and 4 abstaining, with bi-partisan support. The bill unanimously cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Monday during an emotional hearing where advocates and families who have lost loved ones packed the room and provided moving testimony. Advocates will now focus on moving the bill forward in the Senate.
Overdose is a major public health problem and the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey. These deaths are entirely preventable. The majority of overdose victims do not actually die until several hours after they have taken a drug and most of these deaths occur in the presence of others, meaning that there is both time and opportunity to summon medical assistance. Unfortunately, fear of arrest and prosecution often prevents people who are in a position to help from calling 911. As a result, help is called in only half of all overdose emergencies. The Good Samaritan Overdose Response Act would provide limited protection from arrest and prosecution for drug possession charges for a witness who calls 911 in these situations.
Advocates applaud the passage of the life-saving bill. “Calling 911 should never be a crime. Our current policies focus on punishment and drive people into the shadows and away from help,” says Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Saving lives should always take priority over punishing behavior. A Good Samaritan law will encourage people to get help.”
Five states, New York, Illinois, Washington State, New Mexico, and Connecticut, have already enacted Good Samaritan laws for drug overdoses and similar measures are currently pending in several others.
Assembly Bill 578 is sponsored by Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen and Passaic), Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Middlesex and Somerset), Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden and Gloucester), Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D- Hunterdon and Mercer), Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Essex and Passaic), Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-Essex), Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer and Middlesex), Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex and Morris), Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), Assemblyman Timothy Eustace (D-Bergen and Passaic), Assemblywomen Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen and Passaic), Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex), Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), Assemblyman Robert Schroeder (R-Bergen and Passaic), Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-Morris and Somerset), Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) and Jack Ciatterelli (R-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset).
The Senate companion bill, S851, is sponsored by Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), Senator Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), Senator Christopher Bateman (R-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset), Senator Shirley Turner (D-Hunterdon and Mercer), and Senator Anthony R. Bucco (R-Morris and Somerset).
Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, says “When a life is on the line we can ill afford to waste time weighing the consequences of calling 911 or deciding whether or not to be truthful about what substance was used to overdose. By narrowly eliminating the criminal consequences one might face after calling 911 to report an overdose, I hope to diminish any hesitation one might have about doing the right thing.” Middlesex County had the third highest number of overdose deaths in 2009.
Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood lost her son, Salvatore, to an overdose when he was only 27 years old. “Sal was an amazing son, brother and father—a beautiful soul who unfortunately struggled with addiction. His death, like so many others in New Jersey, could have been prevented if the people he was with had called 911 for help; but they didn’t, most likely for fear of arrest. Instead, Sal was left alone to die. I lost my son, and my grandson lost his Daddy, because someone was afraid to call 911. It’s extremely important that we prevent future overdose deaths and spare other families the grief that mine has endured.”
The Good Samaritan Overdose Response Act is supported by a long list of public health organizations, treatment providers and advocacy groups, including the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence–NJ, the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the New Jersey Hospital Association, Integrity House, the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry, Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, Well of Hope Drop-in Center, New Horizon Treatment Service, the Atlantic City Syringe Access Program, the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, Camden Area Health Education Center, the North Jersey Community Research Initiative, the New Jersey Women and AIDS Network, the New Jersey Deputy Fire Chiefs Association, Paterson Counseling Center, the ACLU of New Jersey, COPE Center, Buddies of New Jersey, Inc., the Hepatitis C Association, the Rescue Mission of Trenton, Parent to Parent, and the Center for Family Services.
- Nationally, drug overdose deaths doubled between 1999 and 2005.
- More than 6,000 New Jersey residents have died from a drug overdose since 2004.
- More than 700 New Jersey residents died in 2009 alone.
Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Roseanne Scotti 609-610-8243
Source: Drug Policy Alliance