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Editorial: Law should not make drugs more dangerous

Published December 3, 2013 12:18 pm

Encourage the reporting of ODs
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The only reason it makes any sense for a government to ban, or limit access to, any particular substance is to save people's lives. Thus any law that, in theory or in practice, actually makes it more likely that someone will die of a drug overdose clearly defeats the only legitimate purpose for drug regulation.

As Utah law stands, there is reason to fear that some people who might otherwise have been rescued from a drug-related death will be left to die because those who are in a position to call for help won't. Fear of being blamed for the situation, of being arrested for possession or other crime, is just too likely to cause fellow users, or even casual passers-by, to flee the scene rather than call 911.

A few years ago, the Utah Legislature was presented with a bill that would likely have made the situation worse. It was a measure, proposed by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, that would have actually levied extra criminal penalties for failure to report an overdose, even as it did nothing to protect those in that situation from exposure to prosecution for other crimes.

To her, and the Legislature's, great credit, Moss and many of her colleagues listened to the experts in the substance abuse treatment field and dropped that measure.

Now, Moss has drafted, and an interim committee has recommended, a bill that would take a much more humane approach to the problem. An approach that puts saving people's lives first and cracking down on drug use second.

It is called a "Good Samaritan" bill by those who support it here and those who have passed similar measures in 15 other states. The idea is to offer limited immunity from prosecution, and a mitigating factor in sentencing those convicted of drug crimes, to those who witness someone suffering symptoms of a drug overdose, report it to the appropriate authorities, stay with the victim until help arrives and provide other assistance, such as describing the circumstances and — crucial to emergency life-saving efforts — the specific substance or substances that person ingested.

Of course, just putting even such a good idea as this on the statute books won't help that many people. Much as it may pain lawmakers, and journalists, to admit it, a great many people who abuse drugs aren't in the habit of following the legislative process. Or even reading newspapers.

To work, such a law will have to be widely publicized, in blunt and graphic language.

But first, the law must be passed. It should take no time at all.