For Coloradans whose fear of criminal charges deter them from reporting a drug or alcohol overdose, a small reprieve may be on the way; it just needs …
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For Coloradans whose fear of criminal charges deter them from reporting a drug or alcohol overdose, a small reprieve may be on the way; it just needs Gov. John Hickenlooper’s sign-off.
Nearly two months ago, a bill that would provide limited criminal immunity to those who report emergency drug or alcohol overdoses and cooperate with emergency responders successfully passed through the Senate. The House of Representatives approved its version March 12.
As of May 14, the bill was still awaiting Gov. Hickenlooper’s signature.
In addition to reporting a suspected drug or alcohol overdose, the proposed law would require up to two callers to cooperate and remain at the scene until the first responders arrive.
In all, the law would provide overdose reporters immunity from 10 specific criminal charges, including unlawful possession or use of a controlled substance; unlawful possession of 12 ounces or less of marijuana or 3 ounces or less of marijuana concentrate; possession of drug paraphernalia; and illegal possession or consumption of ethyl alcohol by an underage person.
Four states —New Mexico, Washington, New York and Connecticut — have already passed similar laws. Proponents say it as an effective and balanced way to save lives, while opponents say it is a law that could be misinterpreted, causing wide-reaching consequences.
“Through the establishment of limited immunity from prosecution for people who seek medical assistance in a drug overdose situation, the hope is that more people can receive timely help and lives can be saved,” Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, said in a Feb. 13 Senate address. “By passing this bill, we would be sending a very strong message to the general public and law enforcement that saving lives is much more important than putting people into the criminal justice system.”
Aguilar and other bill supporters argued that such a statue is increasingly important because the number of overdoses, particularly those involving narcotics and prescription drugs, is steadily rising. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses in the United States caused 36,450 deaths in 2008.
Of the nearly 3,718 Jefferson County deaths reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Statistics in 2009, 65 were drug-induced and another 81 were alcohol-induced.
However, not every agrees this is an effective solution to the problem. While opponents may recognize the bill’s intention to save lives, some disagree with its application, claiming the law could create loopholes for a broad, inconsistent interpretation.
“This is one of those really tough subjects on where do you draw the line on what’s legal and what’s illegal, and how we’re going to deal with this situation in real life,” Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, said. “The dilemma is where do you draw the line on illegal use of drugs and where do you give people a free pass. I was not comfortable about how this bill drew that line.”
Golden Police Chief Bill Kilpatrick said the law could provide immunity to drug dealers who sold the drugs that caused an overdose.
“It is a very difficult area because I think the underlying idea is that first and foremost, we ought to be concerned about the health and safety of the person who is having the overdose, and we ought to get them help,” Kilpatrick said. “I’m not sure that the right message, though, is to say, `We’re going to give you immunity from prosecution, when you were involved in illegal activity to cause this.’”
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