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Reporting a Drug Overdose and Immunity from Drug Charges

New Jersey is at the center of a movement that calls for the reporting of drug overdoses and immunity from drug charges. A New Jersey mother who lost her son from a drug overdose is a part of a nationwide effort to ensure that people will not be afraid of being arrested after calling 911 when someone they are with has overdosed on illegal drugs.

In September 2010, the mother’s son was found dead from a drug overdose behind the steering wheel of his car. Earlier that day, he set out to attend an outpatient treatment for heroin addiction, but when he was found his wallet was missing and the passenger seat of his car was found in a reclined position. Someone was with the man in his car, but instead of calling for help, the person abandoned him.

Since 2007, eight states have passed laws that give people limited immunity on drug possession charges if they seek medical help for an overdose. New Jersey is not one of those states. However, the New Jersey State Legislature, recently considered a bill that would have given similar immunity from drug charges, but the law was not passed because there were concerns the immunity was overly broad.

There is little research available on the effectiveness of overdose reporting and immunity measures, but what does exist gives a mixed measure. A survey based on Washington State’s experience with its immunity law shows that opiate users surveyed in the state were 88 percent more likely to report an overdose than before. The survey also found that more than 60 percent of police would not have made an arrest for drug possession after a report anyway.

The role of such a law is important, especially as the number of deaths caused by drugs has increased in recent years. Overdose deaths involving prescription drugs have tripled in the last decade, and advocates say overdose deaths could be reduced if more people felt comfortable getting medical help in overdose situations. Opponents of the laws say the immunity could be taken advantage of, but advocates contend the laws are tailored to limit immunity to drug possession.

Source: The Associated Press, “States Encouraging Drug Users to Report Overdoses,” Eric Tucker, July 16, 2012

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