Lawmakers Consider Expanding Protections For Drug Users Who Report Overdoses

Jan 25, 2018

Florida lawmakers want more people to be able to report drug or alcohol overdoses without fear of retaliation. The effort comes after the high-profile death of a college student, and as the state’s opioid-related deaths continue to rise.

Credit Shelby U via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/heavyymetal/4539604112/

Senator Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, wants to prevent what he sees as senseless drug and alcohol related overdoses.

“Senators, in a majority of overdose situations, a friend of family member is present to intervene and save a life. However, when someone in America overdoses, a call for help occurs less than 50 percent of the time. And the primary reason a call is not made it due to fear of arrest or police involvement,” Brandes said.

And there can be consequences.

“Fear of losing public housing, among people who inject drugs, fear of arrest, incarceration for outstanding warrants, or violating their parole or probation have also been cited as reasons for not calling 911 during an overdose event,” Brandes said.

Florida already has a Good Samaritan law that provides some amnesty for people who are carrying drugs. But Brandes wants to expand it, and shield users from arrest, as well as charges. His bill would protect onlookers from the consequences, so they have no reason not to call 911.

"When someone in America overdoses, a call for help occurs less than 50 percent of the time. And the primary reason a call is not made it due to fear of arrest or police involvement." - State Senator Jeff Brandes (R - St. Petersburg)

“It expands the list of crimes from which a person may receive immunity to include possession of alcoholic beverages by a person under the age of 21, first-degree murder involving unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, and controlled substance or drug paraphernalia offense, to a person in good faith seeks help for someone experiencing an overdose,” Brandes said.

Brandes says his measure is about saving lives.

The effort comes after the alcohol-related death of Andrew Coffey, a student at Florida State University. He died in November at an off-campus fraternity party. According to a grand jury report of the incident, the fraternity members waited 11 minutes before calling 911 after they found Coffey unresponsive.

FSU President, and former state senator, John Thrasher told reporters at the time that the culture has to change.

“There will need to be a new normal for Greek Life at the University. There must be a new culture for our students, and they must participate in creating that culture,” Thrasher said.

This also comes as the state’s opioid-related deaths continue to climb.

"The people who are selling this are tantamount to contributing to murders." - State Senator Dennis Baxley (R - Lady Lake)

“In 2016, we had almost 4,000 deaths related to the opioid crisis, with 10 Floridians losing their lives a day.  I have said many times that I think we should be focused on less deaths. And I think that’s what this bill really is the primary focus on to do,” Brandes said.

With overdose reversal drugs like naloxone becoming more available, Brandes says the deaths are senseless. And it’s something that’s becoming an everyday occurrence for some first responders in the state. Wellington Democratic Representative Matt Willhite is also a firefighter. He says the exposure to death and trauma is haunting.

“Feel the effects on first responders and how they have to deal with that, time after time after time,” Willhite said.

Just last year, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to crack down on opioid dealers. Under the bill, which is now law, people who sell fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, can be charged with first-degree murder when their users die of an overdose. At the time, Senator Dennis Baxley, a Lady Lake Republican, shared the thoughts of his son, who is a deputy sheriff.

“Dad could you please make sure they do something about this fentanyl. It is killing people. They’re dropping dead everywhere," Dennis said on the Senate floor during the 2017 Session. "We can’t go home without dealing with this. This is epidemic proportion. The people who are selling this are tantamount to contributing to murders.”

A year later, Brandes’ Senate Bill 970 would protect those dealers from prosecution and arrest. At the time of this report, the Florida Sheriff’s Association and the state’s attorney general haven’t taken a public stance on Brandes’ bill. And so far, only one senator has voted against it, Republican Denise Grimsley of Lake Placid.

The bill has one more committee stop before it heads to the Senate floor.