By Rose Hoban

A bill to limit the ability to prosecute someone who calls for help if they think someone is overdosing on a drug — legal or illegal — moved one step closer to becoming law Thursday.

Senate Bill 20 calls for limited immunity from prosecution for some drug-related offenses if a person fears they may be overdosing, or if they think someone with them might be in danger of dying from an overdose, and they call 911 for help.  The bill made it through a Senate judiciary committee on a unanimous vote, with few changes and with support from the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association and the N.C. Medical Society.

Drug poisoning has now surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., and North Carolina has higher than average overdose rates.

“The committee members had some important questions, and any fears they may have had have been answered,” said Leilani Attilio from the NC Harm Reduction Coalition. “The bill is very narrowly focused: If you have a small amount of drugs or paraphernalia, you’re only immune for that point in time, only for those drugs you may have on you when you make the 911 call.”

North Carolina had 1,140 unintentional poisoning deaths in 2011; about 700 of those were from prescription opiod pain relievers such as oxycodone, tramadol, fentanyl and morphine. Only about 100 were from heroin.

“It saves lives, it makes sense, if you look at the number of deaths from youth who do stupid things,” said bill co-sponsor Sen Stan Bingham (R-Denton). “People were shocked at the numbers they heard, and we’re very pleased. It’s surprising that it’s been this long to get the bill where it is today.”

“We have to raise the awareness and the consciousness of the people of the number-one cause of accidental death in this state and the nation, and that’s drug overdose,” bill co-sponsor Sen Austin Allran (R-Hickory) told a legislative meeting last month.

In the committee Thursday, Allran made the point that an overdose can happen to anyone, “these are extremely addictive drugs and as long as they’re so readily available, we should do something.”

He also made the point that passage of this bill could also save the state money.

The bill also eliminates civil and criminal liability for someone who administers naloxone to someone who may be experiencing an overdose. Naloxone, a drug that stops the action of opiod drugs, can be used to stop an overdose in its tracks.

In addition, the bill makes it easier for a doctor to prescribe naloxone to someone they feel is at risk for overdose or to a person who is “in a position to assist an at risk person,” such as a family member or friend.

The bill now makes its way to the Senate floor for a vote.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

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