Monday, September 26, 2016
By Ed Runyan
Ohio joined 34 other states last week in offering immunity from prosecution for a person who seeks medical assistance for someone experiencing a drug overdose.
The law, signed by Gov. John Kasich on June 13, is called the Good Samaritan law because its intent is to reward people who contact authorities or take someone to the hospital because of an overdose.
The immunity protects a person acting in good faith from a minor drug-possession offense that is penalized as a misdemeanor or fifth- degree felony.
Granting immunity increases the likelihood that those in the presence of a drug overdose will call for help, thus saving more lives, said state Rep. Robert Sprague of Findlay, R-83rd, who introduced the law.
But Traci Timko Sabau, assistant Warren law director and Warren police legal adviser, said she’s not convinced the law is beneficial. Sabau says it also raises questions as to how to carry it out.
Many police departments apparently are only now learning about the law and taking steps to implement it. It was one of dozens of new Ohio laws that take effect this fall because of the flurry of activity in the General Assembly in the spring.
One concern is that decriminalizing drug possession for those who report an overdose will take away a powerful incentive for addicts to address their addiction – fear of a conviction or incarceration.
Drug-treatment officials told The Vindicator recently the success rate for addicts who go on a monthly shot of Vivitrol, a drug used to fight opioid addiction, in a Trumbull County Adult Probation Department program have a higher success rate than addicts in privately run treatment programs because of the threat of jail time associated with probation.
Sometimes addicts need to hit “rock bottom,” Sabau said. Frequently that happens as a result of being arrested.
“A lot of [addicts’] families argue for decriminalization, but if you take away the threat of jail, where is the rock bottom now?” Sabau asked.
“If, while they are in the county jail, they have time to clear the fog and become amenable to treatment, then we’ve done some good,” she said of law enforcement.
As for the new law creating confusion, Sabau said the immunity from prosecution is only good two times. After that, the offender is charged.
But how will an officer know how many earlier times the offender was granted immunity? she asked.
A person can be immune from prosecution if he or she is seeking or obtaining medical assistance by calling 911 or transporting a person to a health care facility, according to a summary of the law provided by the Columbus Police Department.
The person cannot be on probation or parole, and they must be seeking assistance for another person or for himself or herself for an overdose.
The person seeking immunity must also, within 30 days of the incident, seek and obtain a screening and receive a referral for treatment from a community addiction services provider or other credentialed addiction treatment professional.
“I see it as a step in the right direction toward a treatment model for minor drug offenders rather than a punitive mode,” Martin Hume, Youngstown law director, said of the Good Samaritan law.
“Drug abuse is so prevalent in our society that we need more effective ways of dealing with the problem,” Hume said. “Human life is of such value that anything we can do to preserve life is an important step to take.”
He said police officers become so familiar with the people in the neighborhoods they patrol that he thinks they will know in many cases whether someone has used up their opportunities for immunity.
Police have used discretion in the past in deciding whether to charge someone with a minor drug crime. This law makes the decision making more uniform across the state, he said.