by Marianne Burke
Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States, and since 2013, the leading cause in Virginia according to the Virginia Department of Health. In 2019, the number of overdose deaths for Virginia was estimated at 1,550, twice the number of deaths from accidental overdose in 2012.
Most states (43) have already reacted to this staggering cause of death by passing laws to encourage calls for emergency medical assistance during an overdose. Those laws provide immunity from arrest and prosecution for both the witnesses and the person having an overdose if they call for help. Those laws are known to save lives. In contrast, Virginia and Utah are the only states who offer only an Affirmative Defense. With an Affirmative Defense, the witness and victim are subject to arrest and prosecution for possession of an illegal drug and paraphernalia, but can ask for leniency after admitting guilt before a judge. Because many witnessing or those experiencing an overdose are fearful of getting arrested, witnesses fail to call for help and deaths from overdose occur far too often. Sadly, sometimes these deaths occur because the victim has been dumped somewhere so their death cannot implicate the witnesses.
Currently the Virginia General Assembly is deciding if Virginia will join the majority of states that have changed their laws to reduce overdose deaths. SB667 is the bill that passed during a floor vote in the Senate that would provide immunity from arrest and prosecution for the victim and witnesses. Now the bill is being considered by the House.
Just before the successful floor vote in the Senate, Virginia Senator Ryan McDougle shared that his friend recently lost his daughter to an overdose because the daughter’s “friend” was afraid to call for help. Instead, when someone came to the door the “friend” hid his daughter in a closet where she died. While the bill was still in the Senate Judicial Committee, numerous Virginians lined up to testify in support of the bill. Some told stories of close calls. One father testified how his daughter was abandoned when her “friends” thought she may be overdosing. Luckily, she survived. Other testifiers were not as lucky: a mother described how her daughter died because her ‘friend’ did not call for help but instead called other friends for advice. When it was clear the young woman was dying, he drove her to a hospital where she was pronounced dead. Another young woman, who did not have an opportunity to testify, spoke after the vote about friends who could have been saved if witnesses had not been afraid of being arrested.
Over the next week and a half, the House will decide if SB667 will become law in Virginia. This week the bill is being considered by the Criminal Subcommittee of the Courts of Justice Committee. Passage of the bill would help stem the tide on this health crisis and save lives. It should be noted that SB667 provides immunity only from charges of possession of small quantities of illegal drugs and paraphernalia. It does not provide immunity from charges for other crimes or parole and probation violations. There is an opportunity to show support for this bill when it is considered in the House Criminal Subcommittee meeting to be scheduled the week of February 24.