Drug Policy Alliance's 911 overdose bill clears Senate

In November, Art Way, manager of the Drug Policy Alliance's Colorado branch, previewed a Good Samaritan bill intended to prevent those who call 911 when a friend is overdosing from being arrested for doing so. Despite law-enforcement opposition, the bill passed the Senate yesterday -- but big obstacles lie ahead.

Simply getting the bill, known as SB-20, out of the Senate judiciary committee earlier this month was touch and go, Way concedes. Advocating on behalf of the measure were the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a number of other organizations, as well as "a few people who had personal stories to tell," he says. "We had family members, sons as well as friends who overdosed -- some who survived, and some who didn't. It was a very emotional yet on-point discussion of the recent epidemic of overdoses primarily caused by opiates, and it really brought home how widespread the issue is."

Not that everyone was convinced. As Way recalls, "law enforcement was there in opposition," and in force. "At the time of the hearing, I only expected the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, but it appears they rallied the wagons. The state sheriffs association was there as well, and the attorney general's office sent someone to testify against the bill. And the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police was there, although no one from there testified.

"It was really disturbing," Way continues. "Really all I heard from the testimony was, 'We are not going to be able to put felony charges on people in cases of overdose when they have a small amount of drugs in their possession,' or 'We want to be able to charge them with distribution regarding that small amount.'"

The use of the term "distribution" in this context is misleading, Way believes, because "in Colorado, sharing drugs is considered distribution. And law enforcement said, 'We still want to charge people with a felony-three case of distribution for sharing even in the event of an overdose.'"

Nonetheless, the bill passed out of the judiciary committee on a strict party-line vote: four Democrats in favor, three Republicans opposed. And the margin of victory when it reached the full Senate yesterday was even wider: 25-10, which, as Way points out, means some Republicans voted in favor of the measure.

Still, Way knows the Republican-controlled state House may present more challenges, and he plans to discuss with sponsoring senators Irene Aguilar and Pat Steadman (featured in our post about the failed medical marijuana credit union bill), as well as House sponsor Ken Summers, the question of whether amendments might be necessary to facilitate passage. At this point, no firm date for House action has been set, but Way wants to be ready.

"There's a lot of lip service about reducing the human cost and the financial cost of criminalizing non-violent drug users," he says, "and we have a proposal that speaks to that -- that's primarily a public-health proposal, and that saves lives."

Here's the current version of the bill.

Colorado Senate Bill 12-020

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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