WASHINGTON — The morning after Salvatore Marchese left his mother’s house for a session of outpatient treatment for his heroin addiction, he was found slumped behind the wheel of her car, dead of an overdose. He apparently hadn’t been alone: His wallet was missing and the car’s passenger seat was left in a reclined position. But whoever was with him when he was using drugs was long gone by the time the police arrived.
When Patty DiRenzo learned what happened to her son, she wondered: “How could somebody leave somebody to die?”
Now, DiRenzo, of Blackwood, N.J., is part of a nationwide push to make sure people won’t be too afraid of being arrested to call 911 when they or someone they’re with has overdosed. Eight states have passed laws since 2007 that give people limited immunity on drug possession charges if they seek medical help for an overdose. A similar proposal is being considered in the District of Columbia but faces uncertain prospects because of opposition from police and prosecutors.
“It’s really common sense — just to make it easier for people to call 911 by addressing what people have said is sort of their single-greatest fear in delaying or not calling 911 at all,” said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction coordinator of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that works to change current drug policies.
The measures have encountered resistance from some police officials and law-and-order legislators, who say the proposals are tantamount to get-out-of-jail-free cards, condone drug use, and could prevent police from investigating illicit drug dealing or juvenile drug use.
“It’s like free needle exchange programs where we tell law enforcement to turn a blind eye,” said Kevin Lundberg, a Republican state senator in Colorado who voted against a law passed by his state this year. “If it’s illegal, it should be illegal. If it’s not illegal, then that’s another thing.”
There’s little hard data to measure the success of the laws in the states where they’ve passed. Advocates acknowledge there’s work to be done to make the public aware of the law changes.
Initial findings from University of Washington researchers found that 88 percent of opiate users surveyed in the state, which passed an immunity law in 2010, would now be more likely to call 911 in an overdose. The study also found that 62 percent of police surveyed said they wouldn’t make an arrest for possession anyway, so the law wouldn’t change their behavior.
The push comes amid a national spike in drug deaths, which advocates say could be reduced if more people felt comfortable seeking help in the immediate aftermath of an overdose. Overdose deaths by powerful prescription painkillers more than tripled over a decade, according to a November report issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The trend seems to be gaining some momentum.
Rhode Island, Illinois, Florida, Colorado and New York have passed laws in the past two years, joining Connecticut, Washington and New Mexico. The bills differ in some respects, but generally shield from prosecution a person who is in possession of a small quantity of drugs and who seeks medical aid after an overdose.
Advocates contend the laws are written in such a way to limit the immunity to drug possession, meaning that other crimes police encounter — such as a basement lab that churns out large supplies of narcotics — would remain illegal.
“These laws aren’t designed to establish criminal immunity of all kinds of drug law violations. This is really just designed to reassure that frightened kid at a frat party who’s watching his friend pass out on the couch and maybe he’s got some ecstasy in his pocket,” Ralston said. “If you have 35 pounds of cocaine, this law is not designed to give you permission or protection from arrest for intent to distribute or trafficking.”
Critics of the laws fear they could be easily exploited to allow for a variety of illegal conduct. A New Jersey bill, for instance, stalled this year amid concerns from the state attorney general that the promises of immunity were overly broad. Officials said the bill could be construed as shielding from prosecution someone like Conrad Murray, the doctor convicted in California of involuntary manslaughter for supplying Michael Jackson with the anesthetic propofol as a sleeping medication, said Peter Aseltine, an office spokesman.
“The potential for such unintended consequences is what concerns us,” he said.
D.C. police and prosecutors say the bill is unnecessary because people don’t currently face prosecution for reporting an overdose and hospitals aren’t obligated to report an overdosing patient to law enforcement. But beyond that, it could protect people involved in “serious criminal activity,” said Police Chief Cathy Lanier.
Testifying at a D.C. Council hearing, Patricia Riley, a lawyer with the U.S. Attorney’s office, said there was nothing in the bill to prevent someone facing arrest from swallowing a pocketful of drugs and reporting an overdose — and in turn avoiding prosecution. She said she envisioned cases in which a person who surreptitiously administered drugs to a stranger or acquaintance, causing an overdose, might go free or that someone overdosing on PCP might not be held accountable for “atrocious crimes” committed before the person sought medical attention.
Plus, said police union leader Kris Baumann, “The people you’re trying to target are not the sort of people who respond well to public service announcements. Otherwise they wouldn’t be using heroin, cocaine or methamphetamines.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he expected to tweak the bill to narrow the immunity and hopes to move on it when the Council returns to session.
DiRenzo, the New Jersey woman, said her son had struggled with addiction since his was a teenager but had been clean for about three months at the time of his death at age 26.
Although she can’t be sure how he spent his final hours, she’s confident he could have been saved had someone in Camden, where he died, called the police. She became an advocate for the law change after Salvatore’s death and cried all day after being told the New Jersey bill was being shelved until next year.
A sponsor, Joseph Vitale, said he plans to try again to pass it. And DiRenzo said she hopes to make a new law part of her son’s legacy.
“I couldn’t justify him just dying and walking away,” she said. “I just had to do something for him.”