Overdose Prevention

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Naloxone Anti-Overdose Bill Moving in New Jersey

A bill that would expand access to the overdose-blocking drug naloxone is moving in the New Jersey legislature. The bill, Senate Bill 2082, the Opioid Antidote and Overdose Prevention Act passed the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee Monday on a unanimous vote and now heads for a Senate floor vote.

A companion measure, Assembly Bill 95, awaits a hearing before the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee.

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, meaning it blocks and reverses the effects of opioid drugs, such as heroin, morphine, and Oxycontin. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from last February found that some 50 naloxone programs nationwide had reversed more than 10,000 overdoses.

Naloxone is available only by prescription in New Jersey. The bill would expand access to the drug by providing protection from civil and criminal liability to medical professionals who prescribe the drug and laypersons who administer it.

Advocates applauded the bill's clearing the first hurdle and urged the legislature to finish the job.

"We must have a comprehensive strategy to reduce the huge number of tragic and preventable overdose deaths in New Jersey," said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Expanded access to Naloxone is a key component in that strategy. This bill will save lives and should now be acted on by the legislature with all possible speed. Lives hang in the balance."

"Drug overdose continues to be the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey," said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge). "Each year it surpasses the number of deaths caused by automobile accidents and guns.  Expanding access to naloxone will allow this medication to reach its full public health potential and will be an important part of New Jersey's comprehensive efforts to address drug abuse."

Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood lost her son, Salvatore, to an overdose when he was 26 years old.

"Sal was a beautiful soul who unfortunately struggled with addiction. If the people he was using with on the night he died had access to naloxone, he might still be alive today. Instead, my son was left alone to die. It's extremely important to have policies like this one in place, so that other families are spared the grief that mine has endured."

Eight states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation easing access to Naloxone in a bid to reduce drug overdose deaths.

Trenton, NJ
United States

Naloxone Cheap Way to Prevent Drug OD Deaths, Study Finds

Drug overdose deaths are now the leading cause of accidental death in the US, surpassing automobile accidents, but a new study suggests that distributing naloxone to opioid drug users could reduce the death toll in a cost-effective manner. The study was published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Naloxone package (wikimedia.org)
Opioids, including not just illicit heroin but also widely used prescription pain pills, are responsible for about 80% of drug overdose deaths. Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, works by blocking opioid receptors in the brain, making it possible to reverse the effects of overdoses.

At least 183 public health programs around the country have trained some 53,000 people in how to use naloxone. These programs had documented more than 10,000 cases of successful overdose reversals.

In the study published in the Annals, researchers developed a mathematical model to estimate the impact of more broadly distributing naloxone among opioid drug users and their acquaintances. Led by Dr. Phillip Coffin, director of Substance Use Research at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and Dr. Sean Sullivan, director of the Pharmaceutical Outcomes Research and Policy Program at the University of Washington, the researchers found that if naloxone were available to 20% of a million heroin users, some 9,000 overdose deaths would be prevented over the users' lifetimes.

In the basic research model, one life would be saved for every 164 naloxone kits handed out. But using more optimistic assumptions, naloxone could prevent as many as 43,000 overdose deaths, saving one life for every 36 kits distributed.

Providing widespread naloxone distribution would cost about $400 for every year of life saved, a figure significantly below the customary $50,000 cut-off for medical interventions. That's also cheaper than most accepted prevention programs in medicine, such as checking blood pressure or smoking cessation.

"Naloxone is a highly cost-effective way to prevent overdose deaths," said Dr. Coffin. "And, as a researcher at the Department of Public Health, my priority is maximizing our resources to help improve the health of the community."

Naloxone has proven very effective in San Francisco, with heroin overdose deaths declining from 155 in 1995 to 10 in 2010. The opioid antagonist has been distributed there since the mid-1990s, and with the support of the public health department since 2004. But overdose deaths for opioid pain medications (oxycodone, hydrocone, methadone) remain high, with 121 reported in the city in 2010. Efforts are underway in the city to expand access to naloxone for patients receiving prescription opioids as well. This study is the latest to suggest that doing so will save lives, and do so cost-effectively.

The Top Ten Drug Policy Stories of 2012 [FEATURE]

In some ways, 2012 has been a year of dramatic, exciting change in drug policy, as the edifice of global drug prohibition appears to crumble before our eyes. In other ways it is still business as usual in the drug war. Marijuana prohibition is now mortally wounded, but there were still three-quarters of a million pot arrests last year. The American incarceration mania appears to be running its course, but drug arrests continue to outnumber any other category of criminal offense. There is a rising international clamor for a new drug paradigm, but up until now, it's just talk.

The drug prohibition paradigm is trembling, but it hasn't collapsed yet -- we are on the cusp of even more interesting times. Below, we look at the biggest drug policy stories of 2012 and peer a bit into the future:

1. Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana!

Voters in Colorado and Washington punched an enormous and historic hole in the wall of marijuana prohibition in November. While Alaska has for some years allowed limited legal possession in the privacy of one's home, thanks to the privacy provisions of the state constitution, the November elections marked the first time voters in any state have chosen to legalize marijuana. This is an event that has made headlines around the world, and for good reason -- it marks the repudiation of pot prohibition in the very belly of the beast.

And it isn't going away. The federal government may or may not be able to snarl efforts by the two states to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce, but few observers think it can force them to recriminalize marijuana possession. It's now legal to possess up to an ounce in both states and to grow up to six plants in Colorado and -- barring a sudden reversal of political will in Washington or another constitutional amendment in Colorado -- it's going to stay that way. The votes in Colorado and Washington mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition.

2. Nationally, Support for Marijuana Legalization Hits the Tipping Point

If Colorado and Washington are the harbingers of change, the country taken as a whole is not far behind, at least when it comes to public opinion. All year, public opinion polls have showed support for marijuana legalization hovering right around 50%, in line with last fall's Gallup poll that showed steadily climbing support for legalization and support at 50% for the first time. A Gallup poll this month showed a 2% drop in support, down to 48%, but that's within the margin of error for the poll, and it's now a downside outlier.

Four other polls released this month
demonstrate a post-election bump for legalization sentiment. Support for legalization came in at 47%, 51%, 54%, and 57%, including solid majority support in the West and Northeast. The polls also consistently find opposition to legalization strongest among older voters, while younger voters are more inclined to free the weed.

As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it after his survey came up with 51% support for legalization, "This is the first time Quinnipiac University asked this question in its national poll so there is no comparison from earlier years. It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

Caravan for Peace vigil, Brownsville, Texas, August 2012
3. Global Rejection of the Drug War

International calls for alternatives to drug prohibition continued to grow ever louder this year. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the voices for reform took to the stage at global venues such as the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

While calls for a new paradigm came from across the globe, including commissions in Australia and the United Kingdom, this was the year of the Latin American dissidents. With first-hand experience with the high costs of enforcing drug prohibition, regional leaders including Colombian President Santos, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, and even then-Mexican President Calderon all called this spring for serious discussion of alternatives to the drug war, if not outright legalization. No longer was the critique limited to former presidents.

That forced US President Obama to address the topic at the Summit of the Americas and at least acknowledge that "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places" before dismissing legalization as a policy option. But the clamor hasn't gone away -- instead, it has only grown louder -- both at the UN in the fall and especially since two US states legalized marijuana in November.

While not involved in the regional calls for an alternative paradigm, Uruguayan President Mujica made waves with his announcement of plans to legalize the marijuana commerce there (possession was never criminalized). That effort appears at this writing to have hit a bump in the road, but the proposal and the reaction to it only added to the clamor for change.

4. Mexico's Drug War: The Poster Child for Drug Legalization

Mexico's orgy of prohibition-related violence continues unabated with its monstrous death toll somewhere north of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000 during the Calderon sexenio, which ended this month. Despite all the killings, despite Calderon's strategy of targeting cartel capos, despite the massive deployment of the military, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid for the military campaign, the flow of drugs north and guns and money south continues largely unimpeded and Mexico -- and now parts of Central America, as well -- remain in the grip of armed criminals who vie for power with the state itself.

With casualty figures now in the range of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and public safety and security in tatters, Calderon's misbegotten drug war has become a lightning rod for critics of drug prohibition, both at home and around the world. In the international discussion of alternatives to the status quo -- and why we need them -- Mexico is exhibit #1.

And there's no sign things are going to get better any time soon. While Calderon's drug war may well have cost him and his party the presidency (and stunningly returned it to the old ruling party, the PRI, only two elections after it was driven out of office in disgrace), neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.

The Mexican drug wars have also sparked a vibrant and dynamic civil society movement, the Caravan for Peace and Justice, led by poet and grieving father Javier Sicilia. After crisscrossing Mexico last year, Sicilia and his fellow Mexican activists crossed the border this summer for a three-week trek across the US, where their presence drew even more attention to the terrible goings on south of the border.

5. Medical Marijuana Continues to Spread, Though the Feds Fight Back

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and while there was only one new one this year, this has been a year of back-filling. Medical marijuana dispensaries have either opened or are about to open in a number of states where it has been legal for years but delayed by slow or obstinate elected officials (Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, DC) or in states that more recently legalized it (Massachusetts).

None of the newer medical marijuana states are as wide open as California, Colorado, or Montana (until virtual repeal last year), as with each new state, the restrictions seem to grow tighter and the regulation and oversight more onerous and constricting. Perhaps that will protect them from the tender mercies of the Justice Department, which, after two years of benign neglect, changed course last year, undertaking concerted attacks on dispensaries and growers in all three states. That offensive was ongoing throughout 2012, marked by federal prosecutions and medical marijuana providers heading to federal prison in Montana. While federal prosecutions have been less resorted to in California and Colorado, federal raids and asset forfeiture threat campaigns have continued, resulting in the shuttering of dozens of dispensaries in Colorado and hundreds in California. There is no sign of a change of heart at the Justice Department, either.

6. The Number of Drug War Prisoners is Decreasing

The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced recently that the number of people in America's state and federal prisons had declined for the second year in a row at year's end 2011. The number and percentage of drug war prisoners is declining, too. A decade ago, the US had nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges; now that number has declined to a still horrific 330,000 (not including people doing local jail time). And while a decade ago, the percentage of people imprisoned for drug charges was somewhere between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, that percentage has now dropped to 17%.

That decline is mostly attributable to sentencing reforms in the states, which, unlike the federal government, actually have to balance their budgets. Especially as economic hard times kicked in in 2008, spending scarce taxpayer resources on imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders became fiscally and politically less tenable. The passage of the Proposition 36 "three strikes" sentencing reform in California in November, which will keep people from being sentenced to up to life in prison for trivial third offenses, including drug possession, is but the latest example of the trend away from mass incarceration for drug offenses.

The federal government is the exception. While state prison populations declined last year (again), the federal prison population actually increased by 3.1%. With nearly 95,000 drug offenders doing federal time, the feds alone account for almost one-third of all drug war prisoners.

President Obama could exercise his pardon power by granting clemency to drug war prisoners, but it is so far a power he has been loathe to exercise. An excellent first candidate for presidential clemency would be Clarence Aaron, the now middle-aged black man who has spent the past two decades behind bars for his peripheral role in a cocaine deal, but activists in California and elsewhere are also calling for Obama to free some of the medical marijuana providers now languishing in federal prisons. The next few days would be the time for him to act, if he is going to act this year.

7. But the Drug War Juggernaut Keeps On Rolling, Even if Slightly Out of Breath

NYC "stop and frisk" protest of mass marijuana arrests
According to annual arrest data released this summer by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges. The good news is that is a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

But that still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, and no other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

The war on drugs remains big business for law enforcement and prosecutors.

8. And So Does the Call to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients

Oblivious to constitutional considerations or cost-benefit analyses, legislators (almost always Republican) in as many as 30 states introduced bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients, people receiving unemployment benefits, or, in a few cases, anyone receiving any public benefit, including Medicaid recipients. Most would have called for suspicionless drug testing, which runs into problems with that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant or probable cause to undertake a search, while some attempted to get around that obstacle by only requiring drug testing upon suspicion. But that suspicion could be as little as a prior drug record or admitting to drug use during intake screening.

Still, when all the dust had settled, only three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- actually passed drug testing bills, and only Georgia's called for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. Bill sponsors may have been oblivious, but other legislators and stakeholders were not. And the Georgia bill is on hold, while the state waits to see whether the federal courts will strike down the Florida welfare drug testing bill on which it is modeled. That law is currently blocked by a federal judge's temporary injunction.

It wasn't just Republicans. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Roy Tomblin used an executive order to impose drug testing on applicants to the state's worker training program. (This week came reports that only five of more than 500 worker tests came back positive.) And the Democratic leadership in the Congress bowed before Republican pressures and okayed giving states the right to impose drug testing requirements on some unemployment recipients in return for getting an extension of unemployment benefits.

This issue isn't going away. Legislators in several states, including Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have already signaled they will introduce similar bills next year, and that number is likely to increase as solons around the country return to work.

9. The US Bans New Synthetic Drugs

In July, President Obama signed a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The bill targeted 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years. The drugs had previously been banned under emergency action by the DEA.

The federal ban came after more than half the states moved against the new synthetics, which have been linked to a number of side effects ranging from the inconvenient (panic attacks) to the life-threatening. States and localities continue to move against the new drugs, too.

While the federal ban demonstrates that the prohibitionist reflex is still strong, what is significant is the difficulty sponsors had in getting the bill passed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put a personal hold on the bill until mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were removed and also argued that such efforts were the proper purview of the states, not Washington. And for the first time, there were a substantial number of Congress members voting "no" on a bill to create a new drug ban.

10. Harm Reduction Advances by Fits and Starts, At Home and Abroad

Harm reduction practices -- needle exchanges, safer injection sites, and the like -- continued to expand, albeit fitfully, in both the US and around the globe. Faced with a rising number of prescription pain pill overdoses in the US -- they now outnumber auto accident fatalities -- lawmakers in a number of states have embraced "911 Good Samaritan" laws granting immunity from prosecution. Since New Mexico passed the first such law in 2007, nine others have followed. Sadly, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill this year.

Similarly, the use of the opioid antagonist naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and restore normal breathing in minutes, also expanded this year. A CDC report this year that estimated it had saved 10,000 lives will only help spread the word.

There has been movement internationally as well this year, including in some unlikely places. Kenya announced in June that it was handing out 50,000 syringes to injection drug users in a bid to reduce the spread of AIDS, and Colombia announced in the fall plans to open safe consumption rooms for cocaine users in Bogota. That's still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs unanimously supported a resolution calling on the World Health Organization and other international bodies to promote measures to reduce overdose deaths, including the expanded use of naloxone; Greece announced it was embracing harm reduction measures, including handing out needles and condoms, to fight AIDS; long-awaited Canadian research called for an expansion of safe injection sites to Toronto and Ottawa; and Denmark first okayed safe injection sites in June, then announced it is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection. France, too, announced it was going ahead with safe injection sites, which could be open by the time you read this.  

This has been another year of slogging through the mire, with some inspiring victories and some oh-so-hard-fought battles, not all of which we won. But after a century of global drug prohibition, the tide appears to be turning, not least here in the US, prohibition's most powerful proponent. There is a long way to go, but activists and advocates can be forgiven if they feel like they've turned a corner. Now, we can put 2012 to bed and turn our eyes to the year ahead.

Christie Vetoes New Jersey Good Samaritan Overdose Bill

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) Friday conditionally vetoed the 911 Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act, which would have exempted from criminal prosecution people who participated in or witnessed illegal drug use after the call for help for an overdose victim. The governor vetoed the bill because it would have let drug dealers "off the hook," he said.

Chris Christie is more worried about Bad Samaritans than overdosing drug users. (state.nj.us)
"It's one of these things that sound good in the abstract," Christie told a town hall-style meeting a day earlier in Mount Laurel. "How about if they're not a Good Samaritan? How about if they're the (person) who supplied the drugs? That was my problem with the bill."

Christie said he supported harm reduction strategies, including drug treatment for low-level offenders, but that the Good Samaritan bill as passed was not the right answer.

"What I'm not willing to do is to give is to give people who commit harm to other people a free pass just because they picked up the telephone," he said. "The legislature has got to make the bill better. If they make the bill better, I'll be happy to consider signing it."

His conditional veto means the bill goes back to the legislature, which he has instructed to "study the issue of drug-overdose reporting" for 18 months and recommend "a comprehensive approach."

In the meantime, more and more New Jersey residents are dying of drug overdoses every year. Some 700 died in 2009, 884 in 2010, and about 1,000 last year, according to the state medical examiner.

The bill passed the legislature with bipartisan support earlier this year and is similar to Good Samaritan laws passed in 11 other states.

Trenton, NJ
United States

California Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Bill Signed Into Law

California Gov. Jerry Brown Monday signed into law Assembly Bill 472, the "911 Good Samaritan Bill," aimed at reducing fatal drug overdoses by removing the threat of criminal prosecution for people who seek assistance for people suffering from them. California becomes the 10th state to enact such a law since New Mexico led the way back in 2007.

fatal drug overdose (wikimedia.org)
Sponsored by Rep. Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the bill received bipartisan support in the legislature and was cosponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU of California, and the Health Officers Association of California.

"This is a great victory for parents. None of us want our kids overdosing on drugs, but as I told the legislature, I'd rather have my kid around to yell at than attend a funeral," said Ammiano. "The young friends of those who overdose shouldn’t hesitate to seek help because they fear arrest. With the Governor's signature, they won't have to."

"This is an incredibly special day for the thousands of California family members who worked so hard and for so long to pass this life-saving bill," said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction manager of the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is just a small first step in reducing the number of fatal overdoses in California, but it's a deeply important one."

Drug overdose deaths are the number one cause of accidental death in California, as in many other states. The new law encourages people to seek emergency health services when they witness an overdose by providing limited protections from charge and prosecution for low-level drug law violations, including possession of small amounts of drugs. Those who sell drugs are not protected under the new law.

"I never go a day without thinking of my son Jeff and I never will," said Denise Cullen, cofounder of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing). "Losing a child to a drug overdose is a tragedy in ways I can't explain, but fighting so hard for him and for all the parents just like me, to get this law passed is really the best possible way I can honor him."

"After forty years of the war on drugs, California is finally righting its priorities by putting saving lives ahead of making petty arrests. The message is loud and clear: call for help in case of an overdose. This is an important step toward better drug and public health policies and it will save lives," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate for the ACLU of California.

"The physician Health Officers who provide leadership for public health programs in every county are grateful to Governor Brown for partnering with us on this common sense, no-cost approach to saving lives," said Bruce Pomer, executive director of Health Officers Association of California. "It's urgently needed."

Now the task is to get the word out to those populations where it will do the most good. Advocates from dozens of state and local organizations will be working to do just that, both before the new law goes into effect on January 1, and throughout the following year.

Sacramento, CA
United States

California Drug Overdose Prevention Bill Passes

A bill aimed at saving the lives of drug overdose victims by protecting those who would come to their assistance from prosecution on drug charges passed the California legislature Monday on a bipartisan vote of 54-22 in the Assembly. It had already passed the Senate. The vote came days before International Overdose Awareness Day.

fatal drug overdose (wikimedia.org)
In recent years, Californians have been dying of drug or alcohol overdoses at a rate of ten a day, with the number of fatal overdoses increasing by 24% between 2000 and 2006, according to supporting documentation within the bill.

Introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the bill, Assembly Bill 472, provides that neither the overdose victim nor a person who seeks emergency treatment for him shall be charged with the crime of drug possession or being under the influence of drugs, provided the drugs are for personal use.

Such bills are known as "Good Samaritan" bills and have already been passed nine other states.

In asking his colleagues to vote for the measure, Ammiano noted that more people die from drug overdoses than in car crashes. Fewer would die, he said, if witnesses sought prompt emergency help, but some hesitate for fear of being arrested for their drug use or possession. That argument got through to members of both parties.

"This is not going soft on crime," said Assemblyman Donald Wagner (R-Irvine). While he added that he does not condone drug use, he said it was necessary to "overlook some indiscretions for the greater good."

"It's critically important to save lives," said Assemblywoman Kristen Olsen (R-Modesto). "This bill doesn't condone drug behavior."

"It's not going to encourage underage use," noted Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). On the contrary, he said, the knowledge that overdose is so life-threatening should encourage users to reevaluate their behaviors.

"It's time we started saving lives in California," said Ammiano.

The bill was lobbied for by the Drug Policy Alliance, and supported by a range of organizations including California Society of Addiction Medicine, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice; California Professional Firefighters, California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executives County Alcohol and Drug Program Administrators Association of California, National Council of Alcohol and Drug Dependence of the San Fernando Valley, National Association of Social Workers, Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, Bay Area Addiction Research and Treatment, Families ACT!, Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing and Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing.

The only group to officially oppose it was the California Sheriff's Association.

The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Sacramento, CA
United States

New Jersey Good Samaritan Overdose Bill Passes

A bill designed to reduce drug overdose deaths by providing some legal protection to people who witness them and summon medical assistance has been approved by the state legislature and now awaits the signature of Gov. Chris Christie (R). The bill passed the Senate Monday on a 21-10 vote; it had cleared the Assembly back in May.

fatal drug overdose (wikimedia.org)
The bill, Assembly Bill 578, also known as the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act, would provide limited legal protection against drug possession charges for people who witness an overdose and call 911. It is aimed at reducing drug overdose deaths by reducing the fear of arrest for those might call for assistance.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death, replacing automobile accidents. More than 27,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2007, most of them from prescription opiates, either by themselves or in combination with other drugs, including alcohol.

Many drug overdose deaths occur in the presence of others and take hours to occur, meaning that there is time and opportunity to call for help. But strict enforcement of drug possession laws against would-be Samaritans discourages some from making that call.

Advocates are applauding the passage of the life-saving bill.

"Calling 911 should never be a crime. Our current policies focus on punishment and drive people into the shadows and away from help," said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Saving lives should always take priority over punishing behavior.  A Good Samaritan law will encourage people to get help."

"When a life is on the line we can ill afford to waste time weighing the consequences of calling 911 or deciding whether or not to be truthful about what substance was used to overdose," said Senate bill sponsor Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex). "By narrowly eliminating the criminal consequences one might face after calling 911 to report an overdose, I hope to diminish any hesitation one might have about doing the right thing."

"I and my family are so grateful to the senate for passing this life-saving legislation," said Patty DiRenzo, whose son Salvatore died of an overdose at age 27. "We, and the other families who have lost loved ones to overdose, will be advocating with Gov. Christie to urge him to sign this bill. It's extremely important that we prevent future overdose deaths and spare other families the grief that mine has endured."

If Gov. Christie signs the bill into law, New Jersey will become the ninth state to enact a Good Samaritan law. The others are Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. Similar legislation is pending in several other states.

Trenton, NJ
United States

Bipartisan Bill to Fight Overdoses Filed in Congress

A bipartisan group of legislators led by Reps. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) last Thursday introduced a bill designed to reduce the number of overdose deaths related to the use of opioid pain medications. Among other measures, the bill seeks to ramp us the use of naloxone, an opioid antagonist that quickly reverses overdoses among heroin and opioid pain reliever users.

naloxone package (wikimedia.org)
The bill, known as the Stop Overdoses Stat Act, did not have a bill number and was not yet available online as of last Thursday afternoon. [Update: It is now online as H.R. 6311.] It would create federal support for overdose prevention, education, and training programs run by cities, states, tribal governments, and community groups.

It is aimed primarily at the rapid increase in fatal prescription opioid overdose deaths that have accompanied the massive increase in opioid pain pill prescriptions over the past decade. Since the late 1990s, roughly the time Oxycontin appeared on the scene, the number of fatal overdose deaths have jumped more than 140%, claiming more than 28,500 lives in 2009 (the latest year data is available). While overdoses from illegal drugs persist as a major public health problem, fatal overdoses from prescribed opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone account for more than 40% of all overdose deaths.

Fatal drug overdoses now exceed the number of deaths from firearms and are second only to car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death. Currently, somebody dies of a drug overdose every 14 minutes in the US.

Despite growing recognition among federal health authorities and lawmakers that overdose prevention programs employ techniques and resources that are highly effective at saving lives at low-cost to taxpayers, few federal dollars are dedicated to supporting these critical programs. A February report from the Centers for Disease Control credits overdose prevention programs with saving more than 10,000 lives since 1996.

"Local health officials and frontline workers engaged in overdose prevention are saving lives every day using straightforward, low-cost interventions. With federal support, we could be saving many more lives and spare countless families from enduring the heart wrenching, yet completely preventable, loss of a loved one," said Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Drug Policy Alliance applauds Congresswoman Edwards and Congresswoman Bono Mack for introducing this live-saving legislation and showing leadership on this issue in Congress."

"The SOS Act will fight a growing health crisis that is going largely unnoticed in our country," said Edwards. "Approximately 30,000 Americans die each year from drug overdoses, yet the national response to combat this ongoing crisis remains woefully inadequate. It is time that the federal government took on an active role in promoting proven treatments recommended by medical associations. I want to thank Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack for joining me in introducing the SOS Act, and I look forward to working with all my colleagues to pass this bill into law."

Local overdose prevention programs have been successfully implemented in more than 180 locations nationwide, including pioneering statewide programs in Massachusetts, New Mexico, and New York, and in major cities including Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburg, and San Francisco. Passage of the SOS Act would make federal funds available to support these and similar programs and add new ones.

"As Americans, we rally around efforts to fight breast cancer, childhood diseases and other serious health threats. But for far too long, there have only been hushed whispers about prescription drug abuse -- now the fastest growing drug problem in America. So as the death toll from prescription drug overdoses continues to rise sharply, it's time to move this story from the obituary page to the front page where it belongs," said Bono Mack. "It's time to realize that we can't simply wish this horrific problem away. Not with more than 20,000 people a year dying from it. Not when the number of newborn babies who must be withdrawn from opiate dependence at birth has tripled in the past decade. Not when nearly one out of 4 high school seniors has used prescription painkillers. This is nothing less than a national tragedy. If 20,000 people died each year from food poisoning, Americans would demand immediate action."

The bill currently has two dozen cosponsors.

Washington, DC
United States

Needle Exchange Funding Returns in Senate Appropriations Bill

The Harm Reduction Coalition has reported that language authorizing the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs has been included in the Senate's Fiscal Year 2013 Labor, Health & Human Services appropriations bill. Funding had been approved for FY 2010 and 2011, but the formerly longstanding ban on federal funding was reinstated in December for FY 2012.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected to once again vote for the ban on needle exchange funding in its version of the appropriations bill. Having funding language in the Senate version will give Senate negotiators something to negotiate on needle exchange when the bills are reconciled, which probably won't happen until after the November elections.

The language approved by the Senate is compromise language that only bans federal funding "in any location that has been determined by the local public health or local law enforcement authorities to be inappropriate for such distribution." The Harm Reduction Coalition calls that language "consistent with what we advocated for" and notes that the same language allowed needle exchanges in 10 jurisdictions and multiple SAMSHA-funded programs to use federal funds.

The Senate appropriations bill also includes some other good harm reduction news. In its non-binding report, it calls for an overdose prevention public awareness campaign. That report does not specifically mention the anti-overdose drug naloxone, which the Coalition had sought, and the Coalition said it would continue to lobby on that issue.

And, like last year, the bill includes $10 million for viral hepatitis screening. The funding announcement for those dollars from last year's bill has now been released and includes $1.6 million for hepatitis C testing and referrals to programs reaching out to injection drug users, including needle exchanges.

The report accompanying the FY 2013 bill also "notes the high incidence of hepatitis among injection drug users and urges SAMHSA to implement viral hepatitis testing as a standard of care in drug-treatment programs, consistent with the HHS Action Plan for the Prevention, Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis."

Washington, DC
United States

Marking Mother's Day With Calls for Reform [FEATURE]

On this Mother's Day, more than 100,000 women are behind bars in American prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and many of them are doing time for drug offenses. That's too many, said members of a new coalition, Moms United to End the War on Drugs, as they held events last week in the days running up to Mother's Day.

Gretchen Burns Bergman at the National Press Club (Moms United)
"The war on drugs is really a war on families," said Mom's United's Gretchen Burns Bergman. "It is time to end the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs and move from arrest and mass incarceration to therapeutic, health-oriented strategies. Moms were the driving force in repealing alcohol prohibition and now moms will play a similar role in ending the war on drugs."

Bergman, from San Diego, is the mother of two sons who have struggled with substance abuse and incarceration and is a founder of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing). A New PATH has joined forces with other groups, including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the NORML Women's Alliance, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy to form Moms United to agitate for an end to the drug war and a turn toward sensible, evidence-based drug policies.

The week leading up to Mother's Day was a week of action under the rubric of Cops and Moms Working Together to End Prohibition. The week saw events and press conferences in Atlanta, Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC, in the East and Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland on the West Coast.

"Mother's Day was derived out of an intensely political effort to organize women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line against the Civil War," said Sabrina Fendrick, coordinator for the NORML Women's Alliance. "The reason mothers were made the vehicle was because they were the ones whose children were dying in that war. Women were also largely responsible for ending alcohol prohibition. This is more than just a ‘greeting-card holiday,’ this is the beginning of an institutional change in our society. The government's war on drugs is unacceptable. For our children's sake, the concerned mothers of the world are being called on to demand the implementation of a rational, responsible, reality-based drug and marijuana policy."

Last Wednesday, at a San Diego press conference, the umbrella group unveiled the Moms United to End the War on Drugs Bill of Rights, a 12-point motherhood and drug reform manifesto which calls for "the right to nurture our offspring, and to advocate for their care and safety" and "the parental right to policies and practices that recognize addiction as a disease in need of treatment, rather than a willful behavior to be criminalized," as well as the right to have harm reduction and overdose prevention practices implemented, the right to be free from heavy-handed, constitution-threatening drug war policing, and the right to be free from drug war violence.

Moms United in Los Angeles (Moms United)
"If we stop arresting and incarcerating drug users, think of the number of children who would have the chance to look upon their parents as positive role models instead of having parents who are absent because they are incarcerated," the group said. "We have a moral and ethical obligation to give these children a better chance in life by allowing parents to take care of their families. These parents should have the opportunity to become the productive members of society and role models to their children that they want to be and that their children need and deserve."

The Bill of Rights has been endorsed by a number of religious, reform, and civil rights groups, and individuals can sign onto it, too. To sign on, go to the online petition.

"We are building a movement to stop the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs or are addicted to drugs," the group said. "We urgently call for health-oriented strategies and widespread drug policy reform in order to stop the irresponsible waste of dollars and resources, and the devastating loss of lives and liberty."

It's not just Moms United who is using Mother's Day to strike a blow for drug reform. In Colorado, where Amendment 64 to legalize and regulate marijuana is on the ballot, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is running a television ad featuring a young woman writing an email to her mother in which she explains that she has found her marijuana use to be safer and healthier than the drinking she did in college.

The ad is aimed at a demographic that is both critical to and difficult for the campaign: women in their 30s and 40s, many of whom are mothers. The ad appeared Friday and again on Mother's Day.

"Our goal with the ad is to start a conversation -- and encourage others to start their own conversations -- about marijuana," Betty Aldworth, the advocacy director for the campaign.

And it's not just the United States, either. In mother-honoring Mexico, which marked Mother's Day on Thursday, hundreds of women and other family members traveled to Mexico City on the National March for Dignity to demand that the government locate their loved ones gone missing in the drug wars, according to the Frontera NorteSur news service.

"They took them alive, and alive we want them," the marchers chanted.

While the drug wars in Mexico have claimed at least 50,000 lives, including 49 people whose dismembered bodies were found on a highway outside Monterrey Sunday morning, thousands more have gone missing, either simply vanished or last seen in the hands of armed, uniformed men.

The Mexican government doesn't report on how many have gone missing in its campaign against the cartels, but the Inter-American Human Rights Commission counts more than 5,000 missing persons complaints filed with police -- and this in a country where many people so mistrust the police they don't bother to file official reports.

"For some it has been years, for others months or days, of walking alone, of clamoring in the desert of the hallways of indolent and irresponsible authorities, many of them directly responsible for disappearances or complicit with those who took our loved ones away," the mothers' group said.

On Mother's Day, many mothers in Mexico have "nothing to celebrate," said Norma Ledezma, cofounder of Justice for Our Daughters in Chihuahua City. "As families, we want to take this occasion to tell society not to forget that in Mexico there is home with a plate and a seat empty."

"We have walked alone in the middle of stares and stigmatizing commentaries, and we have been treated like lepers, marginalized and condemned to the worst pain a human being could live: not knowing the whereabouts of our sons and daughters," the new mother's movement declared. "But now we are not alone. We have found hundreds of mothers and we unite our clamor and our love to recover our loved ones and bring them home."

On Mother's Day, the agony of the drug war transcends borders. And the call from mothers for a more sane and human alternative continues to grow, from Chihuahua to Chicago and from Oaxaca to Washington.

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