Texas lawmakers evaluating drug overdose ‘Good Samaritan’ laws

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FILE – This Aug. 15, 2017, file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen, also known as Percocet, in New York. Health data firm IQVIA’s Institute for Human Data Science released a report Thursday, April 19, 2018, showing an 8.9 percent average drop nationwide in the number of prescriptions for opioids filled […]

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Next month will mark a decade of being sober for Joseph Gorordo, but he remembers the vivid details about what life was like when he was dealing with opioid use.

Gorordo’s first experience with opiates was after getting surgery.

“They sent me home with a bottle of Vicodin and just didn’t really give me any other information besides ‘take these,'” he said. “Then I eventually found myself using IV heroin, pretty much within six months of graduating high school.”

“I spent the following six years bouncing in and out of rehab, trying to get sober, relapsing, moving to different cities, moving to different countries, trying to get sober and always finding myself in the same situation,” he continued.

Gorordo is now the director of outreach at Recovery Unplugged, which provides music-based drug addiction treatment.

“The stigmatization of drug use, treating it like a moral failing or just an issue of criminality is not the right approach to substance abuse,” he said.

He says fear of prosecution or facing any legal trouble often overpowers the person when there’s an event of an overdose.

“Just off the top of my head, I can think of several times when I was in situations where either myself or somebody else was overdosing or on the verge of overdosing,” he said. “Practically everybody who I’ve ever talked to who has used hard drugs has at one point or another been in that situation. The typical response is you drive to the ER, you drop them off at the door and you go for fear of getting in trouble.”

As the state continues trying to find solutions for growing opioid use, Texas lawmakers are evaluating the possibility of joining 40 other states with drug overdose “Good Samaritan” laws, which would provide certain legal protections for people who report a drug overdose.

“Good Samaritan laws save lives,” Gorordo said.

The Texas House Select Committee on Opioids and Substance Abuse reviewed the impact of these laws, as well as how opioid use has impacted law enforcement, first responders and emergency department personnel during a meeting at the Texas State Capitol Tuesday.

Lara Lamprecht, assistant deputy commissioner with Texas Department of State Health Services, provided a presentation explaining ways some states have incorporated “Good Samaritan” laws.

“The latest research from 2017 and March 2018 has established that these laws are associated with the reduction in drug overdose deaths in the states that enact them,” Lamprecht told lawmakers.

Hardin County Sheriff Mark Davis says opioid abuse in his community is impacting the environment within the county jail, since there’s been a rising demand for treatment services for inmates. He’d like to see some form of a “Good Samaritan” law passed in the state, but wants a clear structure on how the statute would apply in overdose situations.

“Our first and foremost duty and principle is to save lives,” he said. “Anything we can do as a state, as a community to encourage someone to make that lifesaving phone call – a friend, a loved one of a victim of an overdose – anything we can do to encourage them to notify first responders, to get EMS, to get that person to a hospital, I think that’s a win-win,” he said.

But he also questions how the law could best be utilized if Texas were to adopt such a policy.

“How far are we willing to go to waive the burden of criminal responsibility in exchange for getting someone to make that phone call that’s going to save a life?” he said.

He says this is where lawmakers must craft a very clear outline that would provide law enforcement with guidance.

“I think we truly need to make a clear distinction between a person who is an addict and possessing that because they’re addicted to opioids or a substance, versus someone who is a dealer and a trafficker,” he said.

Lucas Hill, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy and director of Operation Naloxone, said not all “Good Samaritan” laws have been effective in encouraging people to seek immediate help.

“People don’t trust them,” he said. “There’s a lot of good reason not to trust them. While they all protect from prosecution for substance possession, many do not protect an individual from prosecution for paraphernalia, which is always going to be there. The majority do not protect them from other violations such as parole or probation violation.”

Hill says from his experience with working with various harm reduction groups, a “Good Samaritan” law still may not be sufficient enough to reduce fear people may have,

“Many times we’ll hear from people who say if they are willing to call, that if they’re worried about their own prosecution, they’ll call and then they’ll run,” he said. “If they’re worried about the victim, they’ll try to give them naloxone and not call 911 and just hope that it works.”

He notes Texas hasn’t legalized needle exchange programs either and hopes lawmakers will consider that as well, citing rising Hepatitis C and HIV infections in the state.

“I think any legislative change that makes it easier for people to seek help when they need it, to access emergency services and simply to be open about their use so that people understand what they’re fighting and the assistance that they need – any change that encourages that open atmosphere is a positive,” he said.

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