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Ga. weighs ‘medical amnesty’ in drug overdoses

POSTED: March 3, 2014 12:05 a.m.

Overdoses have surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in Hall County.

Yet, national statistics show, fear of police is the most-cited reason for not seeking help in life-or-death overdose scenarios: Fewer than half of overdoses result in a call for help.

“There are so many cases where someone is in trouble but the people with them wait until it is too late, when the person is no longer breathing,” said Dallas Gay, a Gainesville resident. “This was the case with our grandson Jeffrey. There was a person with him but (he) waited until he could not get him awake before he went for Jeffrey’s father.”

Gay, co-chairman of the Medical Association of Georgia Foundation’s “Think About It” campaign to reduce prescription drug abuse, lost his grandson Jeffrey in 2011 after a long struggle with recovery from addiction and relapse.

Jeremy Sharp, a student at the University of North Georgia who founded the school’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy, has lost friends in similar circumstances.

“I’ve had four friends pass away because of overdoses. Three out of four were around people who could have called 911,” he said.

Sharp has testified before legislative committees as part of the effort to pass House Bill 965.

Also known as the Georgia 911 Medical Amnesty Law, the bill passed the House and now awaits consideration in the Senate.

“I don’t know if this law would have protected them fully, but maybe it would have encouraged them,” Sharp said.

The proposed law 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, chairwoman 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.

From 2010 to 2012, there were 76 deaths in Hall County caused by accidental prescription drug overdoses, health advocates say.

The vast majority involve 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 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.

“Certainly I think the idea’s a very good one,” said Dr. Tennent Slack, who gives presentations on opioid abuse along with Gay in the Think About It campaign. “If it comes down to saving a life versus a criminal charge, I think saving a life is more important.”

In Hall County, the dispensing of oxycodone increased by 666 percent from 2009 to 2011, Slack says in his presentation.

“To me we’re in this extended period for more than 10 years of escalating overdose deaths,” he said. “This would be one way to prevent those deaths.”

Gay said people think it’s OK to let a person “sleep it off” after overdosing, not realizing drugs can induce a deadly combination of slowed breathing and relaxed stomach muscles, which can cause aspiration and strangulation, if the amount or combination of drugs in itself isn’t fatal.

Sharp and others are also stumping for a bill that makes a drug, which can only be prescribed by a doctor in Georgia, that counteracts the life-threatening conditions of depressed central nervous and respiratory systems caused by opioids.

House Bill 966 authorizes physicians, in good faith, to prescribe naloxone to people who have someone in their life at risk of an opioid overdose.

The need for medicines like naloxone goes to show the importance of immediate medical intervention in an overdose, Slack said.

“It’s recognizing when someone is in the process of overdosing and not being afraid (to) call to 911. You need to arm the public with that ability,” he said.

Sharp said naloxone is not an abused recreational drug for people chasing a “high.”

His main concern with the Medical Amnesty legislation in its current form is that it doesn’t give immunity to enough types of drug violations, including the prescription opioids that public health advocates cite as the most deadly.

“If it’s not comprehensive enough, we’ll be back up in Atlanta,” Sharp said.

One point of opposition has been that such laws encourage and enable drug abuse, and undermine enforcement efforts.

“The main concern — giving a pass to drug dealers, users — we definitely had to challenge that notion,” Sharp said. “But when you lay the facts out, this has worked in other states.”

Slack agreed.

“There will be people who want to abuse and push the limits regardless of what’s out there,” he said. “I doubt this would exacerbate the issue; it would alleviate the issue.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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