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Proposed bill would expand legal protections for people at the scene of drug overdose

Paramedics in Portland, Maine, respond to a call for a heroin overdose. A new report estimates some $60 billion was spent on health care related to opioid addiction in 2018.
Derek Davis
/
Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
Paramedics in Portland, Maine, respond to a call for a heroin overdose. A new report estimates some $60 billion was spent on health care related to opioid addiction in 2018.

Dozens of recovery advocates pleaded with Maine lawmakers Wednesday to pass a bill that they say will reduce drug overdose deaths. The proposal would change Maine's Good Samaritan Law by exempting all people at the scene of a drug-related overdose from nearly all criminal liability. But the Maine Attorney General's office, as well as members of state and local law enforcement, say the legislation is too broad and would protect a wide range of criminal activity.

Under the state's current Good Samaritan Law, only the victim of the overdose, the person who calls for medical help, and the person who administers the overdose-reversal drug naloxone are exempt from drug-related criminal prosecution. Other people at the scene aren't exempt. And that's a deterrent from calling 911, says Courtney Allen, policy director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project. Allen told lawmakers on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that as a result, people are dying from overdoses at alarming numbers.

"Last week, we lost friends every day in the trenches," she said. "I wake up wondering which one of my friends is going to be dead. But I feel like I say that out loud, and people are not listening. That the government does not hear us."

Allen was among many advocates who gave emotional testimony in support of the bill, which also has the backing of the Maine Medical Association. But the Mills Administration opposes it. Department of Safety Commissioner Mike Sauschuck told committee members that Maine's current law is reasonable and aligns with laws in other states. The state Attorney General's office says the proposal is too broad and would have unintended consequences. Assistant Attorney General John Risler explained to the committee that it would shield people at the scene of a drug overdose from other crimes they should be held accountable for.

"For example, it would exempt from prosecution a parent who is endangering the welfare of a child, possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, and trafficking of the drugs that may have very well caused the overdose in the first place," Risler says.

Risler says the Attorney General's office is open to discussing how to expand Maine's current Good Samaritan Law while balancing public safety.

Last year, Maine recorded 636 overdose deaths, a more than 20% increase from the year before and the highest on record.