by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
This General Assembly session we’ve seen the introduction of common sense legislation to reduce the number of drug overdose deaths. It’s an encouraging development. But, as we learned today during a press conference to announce a package of drug policy bills, unfortunately rhetoric and fear still guide much of the conversation during drug policy debates.
Like many legislative packages, the proposals introduced today include both good and bad ideas.  We're excited to see the inclusion of public health responses to addressing drug use and overdoses.  These solutions are based in science and medicine and are long overdue.  At the same time, we are concerned that other aspects of the package double-down on ineffective solutions.  It’s time for the Commonwealth to recognize that drug use is a public health issue that requires a public health solution.
Here are the bills that rethink our approach to drug policy:
Better ensuring the safe reporting of overdose
This legislation would create 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 is common sense legislation.  While a law that protects those who call 911 from arrest would be a more effective approach to encouraging the reporting of drug and alcohol overdoses, providing these individuals with a good Samaritan defense would be a great first step.  This public health approach to substance abuse will encourage people to seek out medical attention during a medical emergency.
Expanding the use of Naloxone
This bill would authorize naloxone use by any law enforcement agency in the Commonwealth. Naloxone is a prescription drug that, when administered in time, can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, thus buying time for the victim to receive medical attention.
This bill is about saving lives. 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 a huge step toward treating drug use as a public health problem.
Here are the bills that repackage failed ideas or seek to unnecessarily sacrifice our privacy:
Creating a drug-induced homicide offense
This legislation would expand the law to allow someone to be charged for murder for supplying a drug to another adult who voluntarily takes the drug and overdoses.
This law would take the Commonwealth in the wrong direction. The Commonwealth should focus on what actually works to save lives, including safe reporting laws, better and more widely available treatment, and stigma-free services.   After more than 40 years of the War on Drugs, we know one thing for sure – imposing harsh punishments on suppliers hasn’t solved the problem but has cost the taxpayers of the Commonwealth millions of dollars.  Expanding the law to allow someone to be charged for murder for supplying a drug when another adult voluntarily takes the drug will not end overdoses. And, frankly, given the proof problems attendant on proving such a case beyond a reasonable doubt, the bill appears to be little more than a political gambit rather than a real solution to the heroin problems now confronting our communities. Trying to prosecute our way out of drug problems is an expensive and ineffective approach.  The Commonwealth would be much better served by redirecting that money to treatment programs and other proven effective ways for reducing drug dependency and saving lives.
Expanding Access to the Prescription Monitoring Program
This bill would grant probation officers access to probationers’ records in the Virginia Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
We have serious privacy concerns regarding Virginia’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.  The government should not have access to an individual’s private medical information without first demonstrating wrongdoing to a judge or magistrate and obtaining a warrant. Unlike some other states that require a warrant before records of a drug monitoring program are released, Virginia’s law permits access to designated officials without requiring a warrant. Legislation to expand access to this program to probation officers increases our concerns.
While we’re glad to see an increasing recognition that drug use is a public health issue, the prescription monitoring and drug-induced homicide proposals show that we still have a long way to go.
Want to stay informed about our criminal law reform work?  Continue to follow our blog, and check out our Facebook and Twitter for breaking news!  And, sign up to be a grassroots advocate.