by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
aclu03_dlr_general_jpgAfter more than 40 years of the War on Drugs, we know one thing for sure – imposing harsh punishments on drug users is ineffective and expensive. As study after study show, treatment programs are much more effective (and cheaper) than incarceration. While the swift defeat SB 686 (marijuana decriminalization) shows that Virginia remains far from embracing common sense drug policy reform, this General Assembly session showed some progress.
This session, evidence prevailed over rhetoric. Yes, you read that correctly. Coming into session, we faced a legislative response to the rise in heroin and prescription drug overdose deaths that included two positive proposals (safe reporting of overdose and expanded access to naloxone) and one negative proposal (drug-induced homicide). Despite numerous studies showing that safe reporting laws and access to naloxone save lives and zero evidence that a drug-induced homicide law would do the same, in an environment where “tough on crime” rhetoric usually carries the day, we were far from optimistic. But, as session came to a close, the public health approaches had prevailed.
Here’s what they do. SB 892 and HB 1500 establish a Good Samaritan defense for someone who seeks or obtains emergency medical attention for himself or for another individual because of a drug- or alcohol-related overdose (if the evidence for the charge was obtained as a result of the individual seeking or obtaining emergency medical attention). This legislation is a first step toward recognizing that drug use is a public health issue that requires a public health response. While we sought legislation that protected Good Samaritans and individual suffering an overdose from arrest, we are pleased that the General Assembly passed this first step toward a public health approach to drug use. It will encourage people to seek out medical attention during a medical emergency and places saving lives above the need to prosecute the failed War on Drugs.
SB 1186 and HB 1833 authorize, subject to regulation and standing orders, a first responder, a member of an emergency medical services agency, or a law-enforcement officer to possess and administer naloxone to a person experiencing an opiate overdose.  Naloxone is a prescription drug that, when administered in time, can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, thus providing time for the victim to receive medical attention.  As the CDC has reported, between 1996 and 2010 naloxone successfully reversed more than 10,000 overdoses. With this law in place, fewer people will die from preventable overdoses. This is also a huge step toward treating drug use as a public health issue.
On the other hand, the drug-induced homicide bill (HB 1427) failed to pass. HB 1427 would have expanded the law to allow someone to be charged for murder for supplying a drug to another adult who dies after voluntarily taking the drug. While the General Assembly’s decision to authorize naloxone and take a step toward Good Samaritan indicate a recognition that drug use is a public health issue, HB 1427 would have taken the Commonwealth in the opposite direction. We cannot prosecute our way out of drug use – drugs are just as available, cheap, and in demand as ever. This is in an expensive and ineffective approach.  Many petty dealers sell drugs to support their own habit so the Commonwealth would be much better served by redirecting a fraction of the money spent incarcerating these individuals into treatment programs and other proven effective ways for reducing drug dependency and saving lives. And, Virginia law already provides for stiff penalties for drug distributors.We commend the legislature for opposing this legislation.
Drug use is fundamentally a public health issue and must be dealt with as such. Drug policies must be evidence-based and incorporate prevention, treatment, and public safety elements. As this session showed, even Virginia is capable of this approach!
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