Calling for help shouldn’t be a crime, but, in New Jersey, it is. During late fall 2012, your state representatives were trying to save lives by passing the Good Samaritan Overdose Response Act. Co-sponsored by both democrats and republicans, the bill quickly passed both the legislature and the senate. Despite strong support, Governor Chris Christie decided to veto it before it even hit his desk.
The Act is a life-saving measure designed to protect witnesses and victims of drug overdose from arrest, charge, prosecution, conviction, loss of property or any other punitive measures if they seek medical attention.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an international network of students who are concerned about the impact drug abuse has on our communities, report similar legislation is already effective in some form across 11 other states and 91 college campuses throughout the nation.
Most drug and alcohol overdoses occur in the presence of others, but, often, fear of punitive consequence keeps people from calling 911. Under the current policies, overdose became the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey, killing nearly 6,000 people since 2004 according to Drug Policy Alliance statistics. When you realize many of these tragic overdose deaths are preventable, allowing them to continue through inaction seems criminal.
Regardless, Governor Christie conditionally vetoed the life-saving legislation in October. Instead, the Attorney General’s Office will spend the next 18 months and who-knows-how-much taxpayer money studying overdoses in New Jersey.
More delay than solution, the Governor’s suggestion guarantees hundreds of New Jerseyans will die before the study calculates the value of a life. If the Governor’s staff had done their research like this reporter did, they would have found many of the statistics already tabulated, and widely available online.
For instance, in 2008, Drug Policy Alliance released a report detailing the costs of jailing prisoners in New Jersey. The comprehensive study reports the average costs to taxpayers at $46,880 to incarcerate one prisoner for one year. (Let’s call that the value of a human life. Let’s also remember that many drug-related convictions carry a sentence greater than 12 months.) 48 percent of prisoners in New Jersey are serving sentences related to drug-related convictions. The report found prisoners entering the system in 2003 alone would cost the taxpayers of New Jersey approximately $469.5 million to house those prisoners for the duration of their respective sentences. Apparently, even in New Jersey’s prison system the cost of living is high.
At the first town hall meeting held after the veto, the governor said he opposed the legislation because “…it fails to carefully consider all the interests that must be balanced when crafting immunities to the protections provided in our criminal laws,” and that he is “not willing to give people who commit harms on other people a free pass just because they picked up a telephone and called…what if they’re not a Good Samaritan? What if the person calling 9-1-1 gave them the drugs, or sold them the drugs in the first place? Should they get immunity?”
Governor Christie is a highly respected federal prosecutor, but he completely misinterpreted the protections granted under the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act, according to Mercer Assistant Professor Ammandeep Seehra, Esq. “That’s just not what the legislation says. If there isn’t an overdose emergency, and you call 911, you aren’t going to get away with (drug use or possession) and (the Good Samaritan Act) doesn’t apply to anyone distributing drugs.”
A former legal advocate at Drug Policy Alliance’s New Jersey headquarters in Trenton, Professor Seehra is responsible for convincing the Robbinsville town council to publicly oppose the veto. 21 municipalities in the state including Hamilton and Princeton Township have made similar public statements condemning the governor’s decision.
Opposing the Good Samaritan Act is akin to legalizing hit-and-run accidents. It sends the same message to witnesses and those involved: By reporting an accident you risk punitive legal consequences for yourself even though it’s the morally right thing to do. And if you flee the scene of the accident you may never get caught, but you may very well be leaving to their death a person who won’t get help otherwise.
Without a Good Samaritan Act, people have to choose between leaving someone overdosing to save themselves, or potentially saving a life while simultaneously ruining their own. What if your kid was the one overdosing? How would you want their friends to react?
Good Samaritan Laws decrease the amount of potential drug convictions, and therefore decrease the cost of running the Department of Corrections. By decreasing the costs of the prison system, you ease the burden of the taxpayer. Wasn’t easing the tax burden one of the Governor’s tenets on which he based his platform during his campaign? This is real trickle-down economics that works, but only if the changes are policy reform.
New Jersey enjoys a diverse populous concentrated in a small area. The conflagration of cultures and values means a consensus regarding public policy in New Jersey can be elusive. But our voices create a discourse of ideas I’ve not seen anywhere else, and I think we are better for it. Drug and alcohol overdose does not discriminate, and if it has ever touched your family or friends, you know that fact all too well. Good Samaritan policies save lives. We can all agree that saving lives is more important than punishing people and creating criminals. The Governor was elected to act in the best interests of his constituents and solve New Jersey’s problems. His inaction caused him to utterly fail in both tasks.
Recently, Stephanie Bongiovi, daughter of that other rocker from New Jersey, Jon Bon Jovi, overdosed on heroin in her college dorm of Hamilton College, in Clinton, NY. She fortunately survived and was not convicted of any crime. Her life was saved because New York passed Good Samaritan legislation similar to that which Governor Christie vetoed. Perhaps if it were one of Bruce Springsteen’s kids who overdosed, Governor Christie would have been more knowledgeable and understanding regarding the impact of his veto.
If you think it shouldn’t be illegal to call for help when someone’s life is on the line regardless of why they need help, please call or e-mail your local governments and State representatives to show your support for the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act. Let’s be sensible.