Drug Users Would Get Immunity Under Bill Sent to New Jersey Governor

Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey.
by | August 22, 2012

A bill aimed at stemming the growing number of drug-related deaths in New Jersey is headed to the governor's desk following its approval by the Senate on Monday.

The measure, known as the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act, would offer limited immunity to a drug user who seeks medical help in the case of a companion's overdose.

The Senate delayed voting on a more controversial bill -- which would abolish the statute of limitations for civil suits in some sex-abuse cases -- after the bill's sponsor failed to muster sufficient support among the 33 legislators who attended the session. Seven senators did not attend the one-day voting session, held in the waning weeks of what is traditionally summer break for lawmakers.

The Catholic Church has strongly opposed the bill, which it says could lead to a wave of lawsuits against priests based on old and potentially unreliable evidence.

"It's all about the church being opposed to this, saying the world is going to end for them, [that] they're going to go bankrupt," said State Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D., Middlesex), a bill sponsor.

Under current state law, child sexual-assault victims must file civil lawsuits no later than two years after they turn 18 or two years after they recognize the abuse. Vitale's bill would abolish that standard, opening the possibility of lawsuits over abuse that occurred in decades past.

The bill also would widen the scope of liability to include the alleged abuser's supervisor and the institution for which the alleged perpetrator worked.

Four members of the Democratic-led Senate were absent Monday, and Vitale said he had had trouble persuading members of his caucus to support his measure.

But he said he was confident he could draw the 21 votes he needs. He said he intends to put the bill back up for a vote in September.

The Assembly passed the bill out of committee in June but has not yet scheduled it for a full Assembly vote. A similar bill is pending in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, New Jersey could become the 11th state to pass a 911 Good Samaritan law.

Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey, outpacing auto accidents, studies show. About 800 New Jerseyans and 1,700 Pennsylvanians die each year from overdoses. A similar Good Samaritan bill was introduced the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in June and was referred to the judiciary committee.

More than half of drug users who witness an overdose do not call for help, research shows. Many fear that they will be arrested. Under the bill passed in New Jersey, neither the person who overdoses nor the person who helps could be prosecuted for possessing drugs or drug paraphernalia. They also would be protected from prosecution on parole, probation or restraining order violations.

The bill passed, 21-10, in the Senate. In May, the Assembly approved the bill, 67-8, with one abstention and four members not voting.

Some Republican senators who voted against the legislation said they were worried the bill could leave a legal loophole for drug dealers.

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Christie, said the governor would not comment on the bill until he had determined whether to sign it. He has 45 days to consider the decision.

The Senate also gave final legislative approval to a bill that prohibits discrimination against a potential organ transplant recipient based solely on physical or mental disabilities. The legislation now heads to the Assembly.

(c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer


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