Critics Says Illinois Bill Would Discourage Reporting Drug Overdoses

Drug awareness advocates say a proposed amendment to a new law giving immunity to drug users who report an overdose would defeat the purpose of the bill.


Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, wants to add a condition to the law that would require those seeking medical help to enter drug treatment within 14 days or face prosecution.

“This is about beginning the dialogue of how we are going to be proactive about getting individuals to help themselves,” said Durkin, a former prosecutor in the Cook County state’s attorney’s narcotics unit.

The Emergency Medical Services Access Law, which was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on Feb. 6 but does not go into effect until June, was designed to combat an upsurge in drug overdose-related deaths, said Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University.

“It really waters the immunity down,” Kane-Willis said.

A study released last year by the consortium tracked an upsurge in heroin use and deaths among young suburbanites nationwide, Kane-Willis said. Between 2006 and 2008, fatal overdoses nearly doubled in Lake and Will counties and nearly tripled during roughly the same time period in McHenry County, according to an earlier study by the consortium. In Lake County alone, heroin-attributed deaths spiked from 13 in 2009 to 25 in 2010 to 32 last year, according to the Lake County coroner’s office.

Drug users witnessing an overdose should not have to make a choice between entering treatment or not calling 911 during the crucial moments, said Naperville resident Karen Hanneman, who fought to have the law passed.

“In case of a heart attack, you’re not going to say, ‘Gosh, what do I do?’ You don’t do that. You just call,” said Hanneman, whose 21-year-old son, Justin Tokar, was with a friend when he overdosed in January 2011. His mother believes Tokar might still be alive today if the person with him had not been afraid of getting arrested.

Under the new law, that scenario could be avoided. The person who calls 911 would be immune from prosecution even if he or she is found in possession of a small amount of drugs, such as less than 3 grams of heroin, cocaine or morphine. The law does not protect people at the scene of an overdose from being arrested and charged with intent to deliver if they are found with a cache of illegal drugs.

The Illinois law mimics Washington state’s 911 good Samaritan drug overdose law passed in 2010. According to a 2011 study, 88 percent of 355 opiate users surveyed at Washington syringe exchanges said they would be more likely to call 911 during future overdoses. They only called 50 percent of the time before the law passed, according to the study.

The new wording in Durkin’s House Bill 5491 says the person who overdosed or anyone at the scene of the overdosed found in possession of a small amount of controlled illegal substances must enter a substance abuse treatment program. If they don’t enter a program within two weeks of the incident, they could be prosecuted, Durkin said.

“Individuals making the call are also participating in consuming illegal narcotic drugs,” Durkin said.

Simply leaving a person alone who calls 911 for help is a missed opportunity to rope more people in for counseling, Durkin said.

Kane-Willis doesn’t entirely disagree.

“Would we like treatment on demand for folks who are treated for overdose? Absolutely. That would be great,” Kane-Willis said. “The problem is making the immunity dependent on treatment has an impact on people who can’t afford it. … That one statement might make someone not call.”

Durkin calls his proposed additions to the law a “work in progress” and says he is “open to negotiation.”

The deadline to get his proposal moved from the Rules Committee up to a subcommittee is Friday. But to those who don’t want to see it move ahead, Durkin says, “It’s not gonna go away.”

“I’m going to do what I can to get a new resolution to my concerns,” he said.


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