Protecting those who report OD

The people in the best position to save the life of a drug overdose victim are often those who have a lot to lose from contact with authorities because they are in possession of drugs themselves.

As a measure to save lives, the Ohio General Assembly in September 2015 amended the law governing possession of illegal drugs to exempt people from being charged under certain circumstances, but the conditions of the law are complex. Judicial and law enforcement agencies in Washington County are now tackling that challenge to create a protocol, meant to encourage people who are in possession of drugs to report overdoses immediately without fear of being prosecuted.

At her swearing-in ceremony Thursday morning, Marietta Municipal Court Judge Janet Dyar Welch vowed to make addressing the drug crisis in the city one of her top priorities.

“It’s no secret that we are in the midst of a drug crisis. Over the past few months I have met with leaders and ordinary members of our community, and the clear concern was the opioid crisis, and the expectation is that the justice community leads the response,” she said.

Welch said she has been working with the sheriff’s office and police department, emergency services, the county prosecutor and others “fashioning a first response.”

“I think we will have the answer in a protocol within the next month,” she said. “I guess what I am trying to say is that we will have a good plan, not a perfect plan, but if we wait for a perfect plan, more people will die of overdose.”

Washington County Prosecutor Kevin Rings said the law attempts to encourage saving lives while drawing reasonable limits.

“The situation is that the law is trying to keep track of instances where people use this provision, because you can only use it twice,” he said. “What we need is a database to track those instances.”

The idea, he said, is that if a person takes someone for medical care, that person shouldn’t have to fear prosecution as a consequence of an act that might have saved another person’s life. However, the people involved, being exempted from drug possession charges, need to recognize that the law expects them to make changes in their behavior.

“If they’re putting their lives at risk every weekend, going down to the emergency department, we can’t have that going on over and over again,” Rings said.

The provisions of the law include a requirement that anyone who is not arrested, charged or prosecuted under the act has to submit to a drug screening and provide the documentation to the prosecutor within 30 days. People are allowed to use the privilege only twice, and it can’t be used by anyone on probation.

Major Troy Hawkins of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office said the law is complex to apply, but the goal for deputies is to save lives and get people the help they need.

“When we deal with an overdose, the main objective is for the person to seek medical treatment,” he said. “When somebody overdoses on an opiate and we administer Narcan (naxolone), the Good Samaritan law gives them protection from being charged with minor drug offenses.We don’t necessarily want to arrest them, but the trouble is, we administer the Narcan and then they might refuse medical treatment.”

Narcan is a drug that temporarily blocks the uptake of opiates in the body’s cells, but it wears off within a couple of hours, and if the drug hasn’t metabolized by then, the person could have a relapse overdose and die.

“We strongly encourage people to get medical treatment, and if necessary we will arrest them in order to get them that treatment,” Hawkins said.

Applying the immunity provided under the law is subject to individual variations, Hawkins said.

“People on probation aren’t covered, and people that have overdosed three times aren’t covered — the law only allows two — and that’s been a challenge. There’s no central database, so we don’t know if the guy who overdoses here already has two strikes in Cambridge, or in Marietta city for that matter,” he said. “One goal is trying to keep a central repository of people who have used their strikes.”

The ultimate aim, he said, is to get people the help they need.

“Our main goal is, for instance, by us going out on squad runs, we see someone and could go to court and say, ‘This is a good candidate for a diversion program,’ and that might get them the help they need,” he said.

About the law

¯ House Bill 110, Sept. 13, 2015, amended the Ohio Revised Code 2925.11 to exempt people from prosecution for minor drug possession offenses under certain circumstances, allowing them to report overdoses without fear of being jailed.

¯ The bill also requires emergency services personnel and 911 operators to notify anyone calling about an overdose about the exemptions.