SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House unanimously supported a bill Wednesday that would give limited immunity from prosecution for using or possessing illegal drugs to those who report another person's controlled substance overdose.
HB11, which passed the House 68-0 and now goes to the Senate, would encourage people fearing prosecution for drug use or possession to get help if someone they're with needs medical attention.
"We tried to craft this bill carefully to encourage people who might be using illegal drugs with someone else, and if that person seems to be in a life-threatening situation because of drug use, that there’s some kind of encouragement for them to call for emergency help and save a life," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, the bill's sponsor.
Moss said the bill addresses accidental deaths from drug overdoses — something she called an "epidemic" in both Utah and the United States. Hundreds of deaths in 2013 were caused by drug overdoses, with 75 percent of those involving legal drugs often obtained illegally. In 2012, there were more than 500 deaths related to drug overdoses in Utah, she said.
The bill also would allow people to claim an affirmative defense for drug use or possession if they stay with the person subject to overdose and cooperate with medical providers and law enforcement. Drug dealers would not be immune from prosecution, but it would be considered a mitigating factor for sentencing.
Lawmakers raised a few questions about the bill Wednesday, including the proposed requirement for the person to provide his or her identification when getting help for someone who has overdosed on drugs.
"I see that as a major barrier to incentivizing an individual to take advantage of this good Samaritan exception," said Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove.
Greene said people might worry they would be on law enforcement's radar after providing personal information. Moss said it shouldn't make them more prone to prosecution and that it's part of the legal process at the scene and in court.
Debate on the House floor continued with compelling testimony from lawmakers who expressed support for offering incentives to help others.
"This bill is one that hits too close to home in our family," said Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan. "We lost a nephew at age 35 several months ago from a drug overdose."
Cunningham said he's in "full favor" of the bill to protect families and neighbors, but he's concerned about the guilt by association that could come into play. He called for respect for those who would benefit from the bill should it become law.
Moss said the issue affects her personally, too, as her stepson passed away in April due to a drug overdose.
She also reminded fellow lawmakers about the high-profile 2005 case of 18-year-old Amelia Sorich, whose friends dumped her body after she overdosed on drugs.
"Her mother said there were two people with a phone in their hand ready to call, and they didn't because they had more fear for themselves than they did for their friend dying," Moss said. "These are tragic situations."
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