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Kentucky Prosecutor Wants 'Good Samaritan' Policy Out of Anti-Heroin Law

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A Kentucky prosecutor is taking issue with an element of the anti-heroin legislation that state lawmakers approved this spring giving a measure of legal immunity to people who report heroin overdoses.

The provision extends criminal protections to people who report an overdose, and also to overdose victims, giving them immunity from drug possession and drug paraphernalia charges. The new law also says people who don't have drugs on them who report an overdose will trigger the immunity provision.

Kenton Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders says that’s a problem.

“They don’t want immunity, they don’t need immunity but they get immunity,” said Sanders, whose Northern Kentucky county has been hard-hit by the state's problems with heroin use.

“What’s more alarming is that the immunity then extends to the person using heroin even though the person that called never needed, wanted or asked for immunity.”

By extending immunity to overdose victims, they end up getting sent back into the community without receiving treatment, Sanders said.

“Once the hospital staff clears them—OK you’re not going to die now—there’s no way to force them into treatment and for that matter even if they want treatment, there’s no way to fund treatment because they’re not facing criminal charges,” Sanders said.

Earlier this month, Gov. Steve Beshear announced $2.6 million in grants that will go to community mental health centers for local substance abuse treatment. Once available, users would have to voluntarily sign up to be treated.

The new heroin policies went into effect in March. Since then, Sanders' office  hasn’t seen as many new heroin possession and paraphernalia charges coming in as a result of the Good Samaritan provision.

Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan, the state’ chief public defender, said even if users aren’t forced into treatment, a reported overdose can be an important first point of contact with treatment.

“The common sense reality is once you get in with the medical system, you get that connection you’re going to be encouraged to get into treatment as a voluntary choice,” Monahan said.

As part of the heroin legislation, Kentucky’s Department of Public Advocacy received $1.2 million to boost its alternative sentencing program.

Monahan said there isn’t enough data to show a definitive decline in heroin cases in his office, but that it’s “common sense” that the policy will save lives.

“It’s just common sense to call when you can get somebody help without getting them entangled in the legal system,” Monahan said.

State Rep. Joni Jenkins, a Louisville Democrat, said the good Samaritan provision could have helped her nephew, who died of a heroin overdose.

“He was with someone who wasn’t doing drugs, who isn’t a drug user and she did not call when he overdosed because she did not want to get him in trouble,” Jenkins said last week during a legislative committee overseeing the implementation of the new heroin policies.

According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, heroin accounted for 30 percent of overdose deaths in 2015.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.