Utah may try to cut OD deaths with 'good Samaritan' law
Like most Utahns, Carol Spackman Moss has been personally affected by drug abuse.
A retired schoolteacher, Moss has seen former students, friends, a stepson and a cousin's son fall to the scourge of addiction.
Unlike most Utahns, she's in a position to do something about it.
Moss, a Democratic state representative from Holladay, is sponsoring legislation that would grant limited criminal immunity to people who notify police or other emergency responders in the event of an overdose. While the proposal sometimes called the "good Samaritan" bill is no solution to the drug problem, she's optimistic that it could save some lives.
"Young people don't always make the best decisions," said Moss, "but they don't deserve to die."
Moss pointed to the 2005 case of Amelia Sorich, an 18-year-old whose body was dumped in the Bountiful foothills by friends after she overdosed on heroin and cocaine. Her two companions said they were afraid to call 911 out of fear they would be prosecuted. Both were convicted of desecration of a human body and one of negligent homicide.
Outrage from family members in that and other fatal OD cases at what they considered too-light prosecution of drug-abusing companions led Moss to sponsor legislation at the time that was 180 degrees from the one she's now pushing. It would have created a specific crime of "reckless neglect" when someone failed to report an OD. But the measure was quickly shot down by the substance abuse and treatment community as likely to backfire, leading to even more deaths.
New approach • Now Moss is back with a draft bill that has support of the treatment community, prosecutors and at least in its initial test lawmakers.
The Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee unanimously endorsed the bill last month and sent it on for consideration by the full Legislature in January.
"This time we really have some traction," Moss said. "I am just thrilled so far because this can really save lives."
Paul Boyden, of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, helped draft the bill and is on board, he told lawmakers on the committee. It would in most cases prevent charges of simple drug possession or use by someone who contacted police, stayed with the OD victim and cooperated with authorities.
While such "good Samaritans" could be prosecuted for other crimes, such as dealing, their assistance and cooperation also could be used as mitigating factors in sentencing.
The mothers of two young people who died of drug overdoses in recent years also endorsed the measure at least in concept when contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune.
Kathryn Sorich, Amelia's mother, said the legislation sounds like one she would wholeheartedly endorse.
"It's great if someone would call and save a person's life. How can you not go along with that?" Sorich said in an interview Friday.
She said a 20-year-old who was present when her daughter showed symptoms of OD had the phone in his hand ready to call 911 and was talked out of it by another friend. "He had the phone in his hand," she repeated.
Though her daughter's untimely death happened more than eight years ago, Sorich said "the pain never goes away."
Another family's story • Gayle Ruzicka, head of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, suffered a similar tragedy in 2007 when her son Joshua, 26, overdosed on a cocktail of heroin, cocaine and morphine in the family's Utah County home.
Ruzicka, whose lobbying on conservative issues has made her a fixture on Utah's Capitol Hill, said she wasn't aware of Moss' bill but added that she likes the idea.
"In principle, it sounds like something I would be supportive of and not because of something I've been through," Ruzicka said. "It sounds like something that would be a good thing as long as drug dealers don't get off."
In the case of Joshua Ruzicka, Gareth Bozung, who did contact police for medical help, was prosecuted because he had sold heroin to Ruzicka, though Joshua's father, Don Ruzicka, at the time criticized the sentence of one year on a monitoring bracelet and three years of probation as too light.
If the bill passes, Utah would become the 16th state to do so, said Moss. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed that state's "good Samaritan" bill into law in May after initially vetoing the measure. Christie said the change of heart came after some amendments to the measure and a conversation with musician Jon Bon Jovi.
Christina Zidow, director of clinical operations at Odyssey House in Salt Lake City, said she didn't have specific knowledge of the bill but explained that, in general, anything encouraging people not to abandon someone in need of medical attention would be a positive.
Zidow said the growing use of synthetic drugs and, in Utah particularly, prescription drug abuse is a serious concern.
Utah Health Department statistics show that 502 people died in the state last year as the result of a drug overdose. That is the highest number of OD deaths in at least seven years.
Prescription painkiller overdose deaths have outnumbered those caused by heroin and cocaine in Utah since 2002.
Drug overdose deaths in Utah
2012 • 502
2011 • 444
2010 • 369
2009 • 420
2008 • 430
2007 • 478
2006 • 416
Note: Includes prescription and illicit drugs. Prescription pain medication overdoses have killed more people in Utah than cocaine and heroin since 2002.
Source: Utah Health Department