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Drug Policy Alliance 911 overdose bill: Will diluted version become law?

A Good Samaritan bill aimed at ending busts after 911 overdose calls cleared the Colorado Senate in February. But while the measure passed the House prior to the civil unions logjam that prompted a controversial special session and awaits John Hickenlooper's signature, it was diluted in ways that leave a proponent wondering what might have been.

The proposal, known formally as Senate Bill 20, "went to the House judiciary committee in the same form that it left the Senate," says Art Way, who heads up the Drug Policy Alliance's Colorado branch. "And it actually passed 9-2 with bipartisan support." But despite this success, he goes on, Representative Ken Summers "decided to come back and basically gut the bill."

How so? According to Way, Summers limited legal safeguards for reporting an overdose to a single person, "and also decided to remove protections for felony possession, which is basically any Schedule I or II substance -- the very substances people overdose on, including prescription pills."

Thumbnail image for art way.jpg
Art Way.
These alterations were unacceptable to Way, and efforts to restore the original text in a conference committee were only partly successful. "Now, the bill protects for felony possession of Schedule I and II substances from prosecution. But the original bill protected for prosecution and arrest."

Way is hopeful this shift won't prove to be a fatal flaw. "If the bill's circumstances are met, the reporter of an overdose will not be prosecuted -- and if an officer knows that, why arrest them in the first place?" he asks.

At this point, Way doesn't have confirmation that Hickenlooper will make SB 20 law, "but I'm fairly confident he'll sign the new version -- and I think he would have signed the original Senate version, too, to be honest with you. This is a harm-reduction measure, and law enforcement has pretty much agreed to the compromise. So right now, there's nobody upset except for me and various other harm reduction allies, who wanted Colorado to have the strongest Good Samaritan regulations, instead of one that's in the middle of the road."

If Hickenlooper inks the bill, Way and company will watch the measure's implementation closely to see if legislation closer to the first version needs to be reintroduced again next year. In the meantime, though, he believes "law enforcement has way too much sway" when it comes to shaping legislation of this sort. "We need to have a prevention and treatment approach that doesn't have a criminal hook, where you have to be considered a felon before you can get some help."

Still, "this is something to move forward on -- something to begin the conversation regarding increasing immediate calls to 911 in an effort to save lives."

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