Stronger protections for addicts reporting overdoses added to House heroin bill, set for Friday floor vote

02/11/2015 03:42 PM

UPDATED FRANKFORT — The House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed an amended version of the chamber’s anti-heroin legislation on Wednesday, changing the bill’s Good Samaritan provision to guarantee users will not be charged with possession of drugs or paraphernalia if they report overdoses.

Rep. John Tilley, chairman of the judiciary committee and sponsor of House Bill 213, said the bill will likely get a floor vote Friday.

The amendment came after Gary Mendell, founder of Connecticut-based Shatterproof, testified that the Good Samaritan provision originally drafted in HB 213 would deter addicts from dialing 911 because the legislation would provide a defense rather than criminal immunity. Overdose victims also would have been afforded a similar criminal defense after undergoing treatment in the original version of HB 213.

The affect of increased access to naloxone, a drug used to reverse the heroin overdoses, for first responders would be limited and save fewer lives without a more protective Good Samaritan provision, said Mendell, who launched Shatterproof after his son’s 2011 suicide after 13 months of sobriety from a drug addiction.

“It’s not a matter of my personal opinion,” he said. “It’s pretty common sense. If someone is afraid they will be charged with a crime, for example possession of paraphernalia or possession of a controlled substance, they may not make that phone call.”

A handful of representatives expressed concerns with the amended Good Samaritan provision in HB 213, which cleared the judiciary panel on a 14-4 vote with four Republicans voting against the bill’s new language. The final version of HB 213, despite those misgivings, passed unanimously.

Rep. Robert Benvenuti was among those who voted against the amendment and said lawmakers would miss an opportunity to reach addicts when they interact with emergency responders.

“I’m not sure what value we bring in allowing somebody, a Good Samaritan under this bill, to walk from the scene when we have the opportunity to wrap that person, if you will, and to bring them to treatment because it seems to me that all these folks are at high risk of death,” said Benvenuti, R-Lexington.

“… I have great difficulty supporting anything where we have encountered somebody who is involved in heroin and we’re going to let them walk with the risk that the next night they might be the victim of an overdose or they might involve themselves in a crime involving an innocent party.”

Rep. Joni Jenkins, a co-sponsor of HB 213 whose nephew died of a heroin overdose in 2013, said she too wasn’t sold on the Good Samaritan amendment as recently as a week ago.

But addicts have a number of opportunities for treatment once they’re revived from a heroin overdose, she said.

“They’re going to be in an emergency vehicle, they’re going to go to the hospital, and there are plenty of points for intervention at the point,” said Jenkins, D-Louisville. “… We can intervene without charging them, I believe.

Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said he did not expect the committee amendment to hurt the bill’s chances through the House, although a number of floor amendments could be considered during a final floor vote.

The judiciary committee had a second amendment regarding the legislation’s needle exchange program that did not get considered because the panel ran out of time and “I don’t think it can be covered in 30 seconds,” said Tilley, a proponent for local needle-exchange programs to reduce blood-borne illnesses and start the intervention process.

“Heroin and opiates, prescription pills have caused a 1,600 percent increase in the last few years in hepatitis C, which costs on average $100,000 to treat in this commonwealth and most of that’s Medicaid money paid by taxpayers,” he added.

Tilley said HB 213 has enough support to pass the House, and both Democrats and Republicans will discuss the newly adopted Good Samaritan provision before Friday’s planned floor vote.

Still, he said he understood concerns raised during Wednesday’s committee hearing.

“We’ve got to force our addicted population and our sons and daughters into treatment,” Tilley said. “Sometimes just interventions don’t work. Sometimes it takes a hammer, sometimes it takes that judge, that sentence hanging over their head to get them into treatment.”

HB 213 differs little from the Senate’s version of anti-heroin legislation in Senate Bill 5, which unanimously passed the GOP-led chamber during the session’s first week, Tilley said.

The two bills, however, offer different visions of how heroin traffickers should be sentenced. SB 5 raises penalties against anyone convicted of selling the drug while HB 213 would create three felony tiers to differentiate between those pushing heroin to feed their own addictions and those moving high volumes of the drug.

Other differences between the bills include the optional needle-exchange program and the newly adopted Good Samaritan provision in HB 213.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, called the House’s decision to craft its own anti-heroin bill rather than amending SB 5 “a positive step towards entering into a dialogue.”

“It takes two to have a discussion, and it has appeared only the Senate was talking in the past three years until now,” he said. “So we welcome the opportunity to start the process.”

Pure Politics reporter Don Weber contributed to this report.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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