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Bill would create immunity for 911 overdose calls in Vt. - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Plan to prevent overdose deaths divides Vt. prosecutors, lawmakers

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MONTPELIER, Vt. -

"You don't breathe. It suppresses your drive to breathe," said Dr. Harry Chen, the Vermont Health Commissioner.

Chen described what happens to a drug user's body during an overdose. Just a few minutes without oxygen will cause brain damage. Roughly 80 Vermonters per year die from drug overdoses.

"So, really what were dealing with here is harm reduction," Chen said.

Chen testified before the House Judiciary Committee in support of a bill that encourages witnesses or victims of drug overdoses to seek medical attention. In exchange, the Good Samaritan Bill, or H.65, would eliminate fear of criminal prosecution. If the person seeking emergency services is doing it to save a life and not get out of trouble, then they cannot be cited, arrested or prosecuted for possessing, dispensing or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Penalties for violating restraining orders or probation would also be overlooked. It would not wipe out unrelated criminal charges.

"A lot of people don't act or wait to act because they're scared that they're going to get in trouble. It's human nature," Chittenden County Prosecutor T.J. Donovan said.

Donovan believes offering immunity will save lives. He says oftentimes overdoses are the unintentional consequence of friends partying with drugs rather than a malicious plot to kill. But some on the committee say the focus should be on prevention and not excusing bad behavior.

"I'm just so sick of dealing with other people's irresponsibility and this is just one more example," said Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town.

Others worry about the loopholes this law could create.

"This legislation would preclude the prosecution of someone who legitimately deserved to be prosecuted," said Bram Kranichfeld of the Vermont State's Attorneys Department.

State's attorneys worry the bill would strip courts of their discretionary power and jeopardize ongoing investigations. Drug dealers are the exception. Even if they call for help, they will not be given immunity. But they can use their lifesaving actions to appeal to a jury in something called an affirmative defense.

"This is about saving people's lives who are in imminent risk of death because of their addiction, because of the overdose and not a way to provide an escape clause for egregious behavior," said Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg.

The chair of the House Judiciary Committee wants to investigate what's happening in other states that have passed similar laws to see if it turned into a manipulation of the system or lifesaving legislation.

Eleven other states including Massachusetts and New York have already enacted similar laws. The Vermont bill only provides immunity to the person who calls 911. It does not protect other overdose witnesses.

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