N.J., Pa. bills seek immunity for 911 calls in drug overdoses

Sal Marchese and sister Blake. Police say that when he died of an overdose, somebody was with him.
Sal Marchese and sister Blake. Police say that when he died of an overdose, somebody was with him.
Posted: July 12, 2012

Like most substance abusers, Brian Dowerman has witnessed plenty of overdoses. "You dial 911, and then you get out of there. You want to stay, to make sure they are all right," he said, "but you really can't because the cops come, and the next thing you know you are getting arrested."

Dowerman, 25, a heroin addict who lives in a tent in North Camden, may be more responsible than most drug users. Researchers say that more than half of them don't call 911 at all when someone overdoses, partly because they fear the police.

Bills that encourage witnesses to call for help by giving them immunity from prosecution are being considered in both Trenton and Harrisburg.

"The most important thing is trying to save lives," said Robert Garcia, sheriff of Santa Fe County in New Mexico, which in 2007 was the first of about 10 states to pass "911 Good Samaritan" laws.

More than 1,700 Pennsylvanians a year die from drug overdoses, a rate that is nearly two-thirds higher - and is increasing far faster - than in New Jersey, where less than 800 deaths are reported annually. Drug deaths now exceed motor-vehicle fatalities in both states. Heroin topped alcohol as the most frequently abused drug in a recent survey of inpatient-treatment centers in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

Accidental drug deaths have doubled in the last decade nationwide, mostly due to prescription painkillers. Pills such as Percocet and Vicodin can also be a gateway to injection drugs.

State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks) has a special interest in the issue: He has an adult son who is a recovering heroin addict. DiGirolamo introduced a bill in June barring prosecution of people who seek medical assistance for someone who suffered an overdose.

The bill, which was sponsored by 21 Republicans and 24 Democrats, is "not a tough sell, but not a slam dunk, either," he said Monday. "I expect to use the next few months to educate the House and the Senate on the need for such a bill," said DiGirolamo, who chairs the Human Services Committee.

"The reality is," said Stephen E. Lankenau, a researcher at Drexel University School of Public Health, "that many of the individuals at the scene have used drugs with the victim, have drugs on them, or have a criminal record." He conducted a small study of injection drug users in Philadelphia that found more than half said they did not call 911 after witnessing an overdose, similar to findings in other cities.

Prosecutions actually are uncommon. "The problem is that when there are arrests made, that message gets magnified," said Leo Beletsky, a drug-policy specialist with appointments at the law and public health schools at Northeastern University in Boston. In the tightly knit social networks of drug-using communities, he said, "that sends a very powerful signal that you shouldn't call 911."

The 911 Good Samaritan bills - like existing laws that encourage underage drinkers to call for help if someone is in trouble - are based on "Baby Moses" statutes that many states have enacted to protect people from prosecution if they abandon babies at hospitals or police stations, said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey. The 911 bill there passed the Assembly and cleared a Senate committee in June, both with overwhelming bipartisan support.

One person who would welcome a 911 Good Samaritan law is Blake Marchese. Her brother, Sal, 26, was found dead Sept. 23, 2010, in their mother's car in Camden, one of 92 fatal drug overdoses in the county that year. He left a fiancee and 11/2-year-old son.

The police told her that the positioning of the seats, the rolled-down windows, and other signs indicated that somebody was with him at the time of the overdose but did not call for help, said Marchese, a school teacher who lived with her brother in Blackwood.

"That's what we talk about all the time. What happened? What happened that night? Who was with him?" she said.

Her entire family - Marchese, her mother, father, stepmother, and stepbrother - have been testifying about overdose prevention and the 911 bill.

Contact Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or dsapatkin@phillynews.com.

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