GUEST COMMENTARY: New law offer protection for those who report an overdose

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Martha Stevens represents Missouri House District 46 Rep. Martha Stevens represents District 46 in the Missouri General Assembly.

Today, more than 1,000 Americans will be treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription drugs, and about 91 of those people will die.

Overdoses now result in more deaths each year than homicide or car accidents.

There is no denying that our nation is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose deaths, especially opioid-related deaths, and Missouri has not escaped the issue.

According to the Missouri Hospital Association, hospitalizations for opioid overuse are increasing fastest in the Midwest. Missouri alone saw a 138 percent increase in the rate of hospitalizations for opioid overuse.

In 2016, an estimated 235,000 Missourians misused prescription drugs, and in 2015, 1,066 Missourians lost their lives to opioid overdose.

In communities across our state, individuals and families are suffering from the devastating, sometimes fatal, results of drug addiction.

Last session, I witnessed a significant bipartisan effort to address the epidemic using harm-reduction policies that focused on prevention and treatment. I supported many of these measures and filed my own.

Iím writing today to spread the word about a lifesaving bill I supported that eventually passed as an amendment to Senate Bill 501 and took effect on Aug. 28.

It is known as the 911 Good Samaritan law, and it offers protection from criminal liability (arrest, charge, prosecution, and conviction) to a person who calls 911 for a drug or alcohol overdose.

Missouri is now the 39th state with this type of harm-reduction law.

The 911 Good Samaritan law prioritizes saving lives over arrests for possession. It adjusts the focus of the issue to be viewed through a public health lens so that people suffering from an overdose are afforded empathy, not judgment and help, not incarceration.

One of the most important things we do as legislators is listen to testimony in support of or in opposition to a bill. The testimony in support of 911 Good Samaritan legislation stuck with me. Family members and parents told heartbreaking stories about loved ones they lost to an overdose. These individuals were not criminals but victims who may have been saved with a phone call.

This measure is vital because there is a reluctance within the drug-using population to seek help when experiencing or witnessing an overdose. Data suggests that Emergency Medical Services are called in the event of an overdose less than 56 percent of the time.

In fact, the most common reason people cite for not calling 911 is fear of police involvement. The intent of 911 Good Samaritan law is to remove, or at least diminish, that fear.

Nevertheless, the measure is only effective if people know about it. I have created and shared a fact sheet, made social media posts, reached out to organizations and schools, and am now writing to news outlets. Education on the law is just as important as its passage and thatís why Iím asking for your help. I encourage you to share this information with your friends, family, and communities as well.

The 911 Good Samaritan law is progress, a stepping-stone. There is still work to be done on this issue. I believe a multifaceted, collective public health effort is needed to bring much needed resources into our state and community so we can best address Missouriís opioid crisis and ensure we have the healthiest communities possible.

As policymakers, we must search for solutions that will help curb drug use and overdose by expanding access to treatment, increasing funding, looking into more prevention opportunities, modifying penalties, etc. I look forward to supporting those policies, like needle exchange programs and drug monitoring programs.

I will also be filing legislation in 2018 to support new moms suffering from addiction. I am optimistic the Missouri legislature will continue taking steps to curb the public health crisis currently invading the nation and our state.

Martha Stevens represents District 46 in the Missouri General Assembly.

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