Utah Measure Aims to Prevent Overdose Deaths

December 4, 2013

A Democratic state representative who has seen family members and former students suffer with addiction is pushing a legislative measure that would grant limited criminal immunity to people who call police to report an overdose.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss of Holladay said several young people have died in recent years from drug and alcohol overdoses because the people they were with were afraid they would get in trouble if they called police, The Salt Lake Tribune reported Monday.

“Young people don’t always make the best decisions,” the retired teacher said, “but they don’t deserve to die.”

Her proposal, which is similar to “good Samaritan” laws in more than a dozen other states, has already been endorsed by a state criminal justice committee. It will be reviewed by the full Utah Legislature when the session opens in January.

It also has the backing of the Utah Statewide Association of Prosecutors.

Spackman Moss’ proposal comes a year after Utah reported a seven-year high in overdose deaths. The 502 deaths include overdoses from prescription and illegal drugs, Utah Health Department figures show.

She said the 2005 death of Amelia Sorich, whose body was dumped in the foothills by friends, is a prime example of why the law is needed. The two people with 18-year-old Sorich said they didn’t call police because they were afraid they would be arrested. In the end, they were convicted of negligent homicide and desecration of a human body.

Paul Boyden of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors helped draft the proposed legislation. He said the law would allow people who report an overdose and stay with the victim to avoid being charged with simple drug possession or drug use.

They could still face other charges, such as drug dealing, but their cooperation could help them get lighter sentences, Boyden said.

This isn’t the first time Spackman Moss has drafted a measure to address the issue of overdose deaths. But a previous attempt took a polar opposite approach: creating a crime for failing to report overdoses. That idea was rejected by substance abuse professionals who said it would backfire and cause more deaths.

“This time we really have some traction,” Moss told the Tribune. “I am just thrilled so far because this can really save lives.”

The idea also has the preliminary support of Gayle Ruzicka, head of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum. Her son Joshua, 26, died from an overdose of heroin, cocaine and morphine in the family’s home in Utah County.

“In principle, it sounds like something I would be supportive of – and not because of something I’ve been through,” Ruzicka told the Tribune. “It sounds like something that would be a good thing as long as drug dealers don’t get off.”

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