Public health advocates say addressing the fear of legal repercussions after dialing 911 will save overdose victims in a medical crisis after Georgia’s “medical amnesty” bill passed the legislature Tuesday.
“There was a lot of emotion in this bill because there’s a lot of people who have been and are going to be affected by this situation,” said Jeremy Sharp, a student at the University of North Georgia and founder of UNG’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Sharp said it was hard work to keep the bill alive as proposed changes from unrelated bills threatened to derail the legislation.
“There was a lot of politics,” Sharp said. “Amendments were added, then taken off.”
Advocates stuck around and kept their foot in the door as the last-minute lobbying ensued, he said.
“The parents were running around and lobbied the heck out of legislators to make sure it stayed clean, keep it how we wanted it,” he added. “My group from UNG got there at 9:30 a.m. and stayed until 10 o’clock at night when they passed it.”
Supporters of a bill that would have allowed Georgians access to a form of medical marijuana rich in a compound cited for medical purposes in limited studies — and low in THC, the chemical that causes the high — experienced similar politicking. The bill failed to garner a vote after it was combined with an autism insurance mandate bill.
“We wanted the bill to be about saving lives, simply,” Sharp said. “It’s a policy change and a way to save people’s lives.”
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.
The medical amnesty bill was also merged with another overdose prevention measure passed in the Senate. That provision would make Naloxone, a prescription drug administered to counteract an opioid overdose, more available. Physicians, in good faith, could prescribe the drug for family, friends and addicts under the bill.
The bill now goes to the governor’s office, and is an expansion of amnesty from its original form; Sharp’s main concern with the legislation in previous versions was that it didn’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 a harder substance, and under 4 grams, that person is immune from prosecution; if the person who is suffering from the overdose calls 911 or the caller stays and cooperates, they are immune from prosecution,” Sharp said.
The proposed law also covers people who are on parole and probation. And another key allowance was made to his surprise, Sharp said.
“Underage drinking was added,” he said. “That was actually really good, we thought we might not be able to get that.”
The bill had garnered widespread support, including from the “Think About It” campaign, sponsored by the Medical Association of Georgia Foundation.
The campaign seeks to reduce prescription drug abuse and accidental overdose deaths from prescription narcotics. From 2010 to 2012, there were 76 deaths in Hall County caused by accidental prescription drug overdoses, health advocates say, and the vast majority involved prescription pain drugs, and most are classified as accidental.
“Certainly I think the idea’s a very good one,” said Dr. Tennent Slack, when the bill was awaiting Senate approval. Slack gives presentations on opioid abuse for 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.
Sharp said the “next step” for the UNG organization is publicizing the change if enacted with a signature from Gov. Nathan Deal.
“The next step is just talking about Georgia overdose deaths. It’s not about scare tactics, but getting the message out — empowering people with common sense,” he said.