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‘People are being poisoned’: Kansas bill offers immunity for helping overdose victims

At the Kansas Capitol last month, families wept while recounting the deaths of their children, relatives and friends from fentanyl.

Their stories are a small piece in a much larger national epidemic that’s killed nearly half a million Americans over the past few years. Like hundreds of other Kansans, their loved ones overdosed on the synthetic opioid that is roughly 100 times stronger than morphine.

Forty-eight states have laws that extend immunity from prosecution to drug users who seek help and to others that call for or provide medical aid to an overdosing individual. The shield is meant to encourage people to seek help.

Kansas has no such law. If someone calls for help on their own or on another person’s behalf, they could be arrested immediately following medical aid.

Advocates for individuals with addictions worry the state’s current law discourages people from calling 911 during a medical emergency because they fear arrest. The result, they say, is that many overdose victims die alone after other users flee the scene.

Amber Saale-burger lost four family members, including one of her daughters, to fentanyl. She believes two family members – her sister-in-law and her son-in-law, who both overdosed around others that fled the scene – could have been saved if this law changed.

David Carter Jr. was the 16-year-old boyfriend of her daughter, Becca, who was raising a child with her. To Saale-burger, however, he was like another son. He had just gotten his first job and looked forward to being a father, Saale-burger said.

But at a Fourth of July party, surrounded by people, Carter took a pill laced with fentanyl and fatally overdosed. Everyone who was at the party left him, leaving Becca to find his body early the next morning – when it was far too late to receive medical aid.

She recalled seeing David’s body as the worst moment of her life.

“The body of a 16 year old is very small,” she said. “I don’t think he knew. I don’t think he would have put himself in a situation to not be there to raise his child. To be a father. He loved them so much. And he was so young, trying, trying really hard to make his son have a better life than he had.”

Legislation introduced in Kansas called the Good Samaritan Law would change that by granting immunity for possession of a substance with intent to use drug paraphernalia to ingest a narcotic if a person calls 911 on their own or on someone else’s behalf. The immunity would apply to any number of people who rendered aid or contacted EMS during an overdose.

That immunity would only be granted to individuals who contacted emergency services or rendered medical aid. They must additionally stay at the scene and provide their name and personal information to law enforcement officers.

The Kansas House passed the bill 120-0 on Thursday. It now heads to the Senate.

Nearly all states offer immunity

Wyoming is the only other state that doesn’t provide some form of immunity. Research indicates states with Good Samaritan laws have lower overdose mortality rates within the first two years of enactment.

Saale-burger lost her sister in law, 36-year-old Monica Burger, in a similar fashion. Burger, a mother of three, had battled with addiction off and on for many years and attended a large party filled with friends.

While there, she took an illicit fentanyl pill and became unresponsive. Everyone at the party had drugs on them, she said, so they refused to call the police, fearing arrest. One man, who was “young and scared,” stepped up and called the police, but fled the scene afterward. By the time the police arrived, the scene was cleaned of any evidence of narcotics, and only the homeowner remained.

She called the people who left her family members to die alone ignorant and selfish for forcing them to grow up without their children. Burger and Carter’s deaths could have been prevented, Saale-burger said.

“I don’t think, I know that both of those people would still be here,” she said. “You could say they may not still be here if it happened again, but they would have had a chance to get their life on track.”

Addiction experts say the bill is desperately needed since nearly 40% of overdose deaths occur while a bystander is present. Chrissy Mayer, an advocate with Douglas County Citizens Committee on Alcoholism, Inc., said the legislation would empower bystanders to act, likely drastically reducing overdose mortality rates.

Bystanders are often put in a difficult position when they have to choose between saving a friend’s life or enduring significant jail time, she said.

“We’ve all been in a situation we wish we weren’t in,” Mayer said. “But if we knew we could do something to help without consequences, we might behave differently.”

Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican who sponsored the bill, said the bill is personally significant to him because his younger brother struggles with addiction. Every day, he said, he fears his mother will receive a call many proponents had already received.

He said the bill is not intended to promote a soft-on-crime approach. Instead, he cast it as “pro-life legislation” that takes away any hesitation to call 911 when a person is in danger.

“This can help the two teenagers who are experimenting with pills for the first time just as much as it can help 50-year-old drug addicts who have been addicted for 30 years,” he said. “It can help the bank CEO who is addicted to opioids. This isn’t targeted to one group. It helps everyone.”

On the House floor, Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, relayed a story told to him by an Overland Park mother in which her 20-year-old son overdosed but did not die.

Her son was charged with a felony. The mother said she worried her son would relapse, potentially putting him in an environment where others would be too scared to save his life if he overdosed for the second time.

Her son survived. But if he were to relapse and overdose again, he would likely obtain an additional felony potentially prompting even more hesitation to reach out for help on his behalf.

Lawmakers like Probst and activists alike say fentanyl has changed the way people think about drugs and addiction due to high numbers of overdoses. Unlike other drugs, fentanyl is often disguised as a legitimate prescription pill, leaving many unaware they are ingesting the substance until it is too late.

“There’s a recognition that people are being poisoned,” he said. “These drugs on the market are not a choice. These people are being poisoned by a drug that they are unaware is in there. We have a duty in this body to protect those people and give them an opportunity to live full, enriching lives.”

Seven out of every 10 pills illegally distributed in the U.S. contain a lethal dose of fentanyl, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The number of fentanyl pills seized by law enforcement continues to rise as the drug consumes illicit narcotics operations.

Rep. Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican who sponsored the bill, said he did not fully understand the issue until this year when fentanyl deaths rose in the community. Unlike other drugs, fentanyl kills people from all walks of life, he said.

“We’re all desperate to do something,” he said. “Whether you live in Pittsburg or 50 miles from Garden City, or even in Johnson County or Leavenworth, you have neighbors that are dying.”

‘They didn’t know’

Cruz Burris, a 15-year-old boy with a knack for songwriting, did not know he was playing roulette with his life when he unknowingly purchased a fake prescription pill from a dealer on Snapchat. With no history of addiction, his parents, Rhonda and Andy, described him as a “naive child” experimenting with drugs.

Cruz ingested the fake pill while on FaceTime with his closest friends, wanting to share his first experience high with them. Shortly afterward, his friends witnessed Cruz begin to overdose, stop breathing and drop dead on the call.

His friends – who Andy and Rhonda described as children who could not possibly know the gravity of the situation – did not call 911, instead texting Cruz’s sister, who was asleep, to check on him.

Andy and Rhonda found Cruz early the next morning laying on his side, cold and gray, with his phone still in his hand. And although he had died hours prior, they performed CPR and called 911, hoping the situation was a nightmare.

Andy and Rhonda believe legislation like the Good Samaritan Law could have saved their son.

“These young boys were scared to death,” Rhonda said. “They didn’t know one pill could kill. If they had this law, maybe they would’ve done something.”

Instead, Rhonda and Andy, along with many others, blame the dealers lying to their customers and handing out pills laced with fentanyl. The proposed Kansas bill includes an exception that bars anyone possessing a traffic-able amount of narcotics from immunity.

Additionally, immunity is not extended to people on probation, parole and conditional release – a provision included in an amendment to keep support from law enforcement, but controversial for some lawmakers.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, supported the amendment for the sake of moving the bill forward, but vocally opposed the intent behind it. People, even law enforcement officers, could be negatively affected by narcotics left lying around, he said.

“It’s unfortunate that we are about to risk the lives of law enforcement officers, children and others whose lives could’ve been saved if only we’d given them immunity,” he said.

Law enforcement agencies, including the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Wichita Police Department, do support the measure. Ed Klumpp, a longtime law enforcement lobbyist in Kansas, said the legislation aligns with law enforcement’s goal to serve and protect citizens.

“The only thing this does is grant immunity for simple possession charges in order to get them to stay and help,” he said. “The loss of prosecuting is worth any chance at all for someone to stick around. If it does no harm then we certainly prefer to err on the side of getting people to stick around to save a life.”

During a hearing last month in the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice, Kelly Garner sported a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of her 19-year-old daughter Desi’ree Washington as she shakily recalled the day her daughter fatally overdosed. Washington thought she was taking a Xanax pill, but it contained nothing but illicit fentanyl.

When Garner returned home from work last January, she found her daughter unresponsive in her bed, but still alive. She passed shortly afterward when emergency services showed up but were not carrying naloxone, a medication often referred to by its brand name Narcan that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. She believes the law could have significant effects on families who have gone through similar ordeals.

But the bill’s potential passage does not mean the work is done, activists say. Making sure people – especially frequent drug users – are aware of the law will determine how effective it will be at saving lives.

Mayer, who works to distribute free naloxone kits, said the effort to save lives will only be partially finished if the bill becomes law.

“A key piece if this legislation passes is ensuring people are aware of the law,” she said. “Supporting the message of Kansas has a Good Samaritan Law and educating people on what that means means more people are empowered to call 911.”

If the law is enacted, more legislation is needed to properly address the fentanyl epidemic, victims’ families and lawmakers said, potentially including higher penalties for dealers and the uniform carry of Narcan by police officers. Educating people about the dangers of the synthetic opioid, especially through programs such as D.A.R.E., is essential, they said.

“You’ve got to keep people alive until you can get that crap off the streets,” Proctor said. “And then you’ve got to get the people selling it and put them in jail.”