Valdosta Daily Times

National, International News

March 2, 2014

Ga. weighs amnesty in drug overdoses

ATLANTA — Tanya Smith, a Georgia police officer who oversees criminal investigations, is no stranger to battling the perils of drug abuse. Yet Smith’s current fight is personal, in memory of her 20-year-old daughter, Taylor, who died last year while using drugs after no one called 911 for help.

Smith is among a group of parents lobbying on behalf of a bill that would grant amnesty from certain drug charges for those who seek help in the event of a drug overdose. Seventeen states have passed similar so-called “Good Samaritan laws,” and proposals are pending this year in others including Georgia and West Virginia.

“My daughter died because people were too afraid to dial 911,” said Smith, a lieutenant with the Holly Springs Police Department. “This is taking that fear out of it.”

House Bill 965, also known as the Georgia 911 Medical Amnesty Law, has passed the House and now awaits consideration in the Senate. The bill received overwhelming support in the House and is expected to be received favorably in the Senate. Lawmakers have until March 20 to decide whether to approve the bill and send it to Gov. Nathan Deal.

Rep. Sharon Cooper, chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said she sponsored the bill after meeting with the parents of several young adults who had died while using drugs. Statistics from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation show a steady increase in the number of drug overdose deaths in the state, rising from 638 in 2008 to 686 in 2012. The vast majority involves prescription drugs, and most are classified as accidental.

“Many of those people could have been saved, but for the fact that they often do drugs with other young people and when one in the group gets into terrible medical distress, the others panic,” said Cooper, R-Marietta. “They are afraid they are going to get charged, and they abandon the one who is in extreme distress.”

Cooper notes in her bill a similar law in North Carolina that has been credited with saving at least 20 people since it passed last year and points to a Massachusetts law believed to have helped some 120 people since 2012. She said a large effort will have to be made, led by the parents, to educate young people about the law if it’s ultimately passed.

Under the bill, a person can seek medical assistance without fear of prosecution on possession charges in cases when small amounts of drugs are involved. The person who needs help also would not face charges under the same circumstances, according to the bill. Cooper said she worked with prosecutors on the bill.

“It does not let drug dealers get off,” Cooper said in a speech urging her colleagues to support the bill. “It just allows people to have a second chance.”

Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said the group did not ask for the bill but worked closely with Cooper on the language.

“We’ve never had a problem with the concept. It’s always the devil in the details,” Spahos said. “We believe it is narrowly focused enough not to be a hindrance to legitimate prosecutions.”

The Georgia Sheriffs Association has not taken a position on the bill, which means they aren’t actively opposing it.

For Smith and the other families, the House vote in favor of the bill was emotional and they expressed gratitude to the lawmakers who supported it.

“It’s the pain that we had to go through that might get this passed,” Smith said. “My daughter came from a good home. She came from a very loving family. These are your boys- and girls-next-door. These are the kids that you look at and would think they would never do drugs, they were taught better, but they still do it.”

Smith said she and the other families will continue to push for the bill in memory of their children.

“Addiction is a horrible thing. My daughter fought it for two years, and it was two years of hell,” Smith said. “I wish she would have had one more day to fight.”

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