HARRISBURG – As the Pennsylvania General Assembly wrapped up its budget-related business, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania expressed its disappointment today over one piece of unfinished business. Legislation to provide immunity to witnesses to drug overdoses who call for emergency help was poised for a final vote in the state House of Representatives, but that vote never came.
“This bill has the potential to save lives,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “And it is a step back from the enforcement mentality toward drug use. For decades, the commonwealth has tried to incarcerate its way out of the drug abuse problem. All we have to show for it is a bloated prison system, shattered lives, and no dent in drug usage.”
Senate Bill 1164, which was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, was amended on the House floor on June 24 to clarify the immunity provision and to expand access to Naloxone, a prescription medication that can override the effects of an overdose. The bill was passed by the House Appropriations Committee the following day, but a vote on final passage did not occur before the House recessed on July 2.
“Our hope is that the House will make this bill its first vote when it returns to session in September,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Every day that passes without this law in effect means more witnesses to overdoses have to weigh the legal ramifications of calling 911.
“When someone overdoses, everyone’s first thought should be, ‘How do we save this person’s life?’ It is time to treat drug use as a public health issue, not a law enforcement issue.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states and the District of Columbia have some form of immunity for witnesses to overdoses who summon emergency services, which are sometimes called “Good Samaritan” laws. Hoover noted that there appears to be consensus among lawmakers and advocates for the concept of the bill in Pennsylvania.
“As this legislation has moved along, it has been clear that legislators from both parties, law enforcement, civil rights advocates, and drug policy experts agree that there is a need for some form of immunity for overdose witnesses who summon help,” Hoover said. “Now the legislature simply needs to push the bill over the finish line.”
The state House of Representatives is scheduled to return to session on September 15.