In quest to prevent overdose deaths, Legislature considers criminal immunity for users

More than 70 Vermonters died last year in “drug-related” fatalities. Now lawmakers are wondering whether fear of prosecution might have cost some of them their lives.

Legislation introduced in the House this afternoon would extend limited criminal immunity to anyone who seeks medical attention for a drug user experiencing an overdose. Convinced that the threat of prosecution has deterred life-saving calls to 911, Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan said minimizing deaths associated with opiate use needs to become a public health imperative.

“In no way do I view  this bill as condoning drug use or condoning people sharing drugs,” Donovan told the House Judiciary Committee this morning. “I view this bill as an effort o save people’s lives. It’s very simple.”

While the concept might be simple, executing it in statute will not be. The Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs has already voiced concerns about the scope of crimes for which offenders would win immunity.

The legislation guarantees immunity for people possessing or dispensing illicit narcotics, so long as evidence of those crimes is the result of the offender’s effort to secure emergency medical treatment for someone at risk of an overdose.

The bill also creates what’s known as an “affirmative defense” for more severe crimes, including dispensing a narcotic with death resulting. An affirmative defense doesn’t shield an offender from prosecution for the death of someone to whom he or she gave drugs. However if the defendant can prove in trial that he was caught only because he was attempting to secure medical care for the dying victim, then the case would be tossed.

Check out tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald for more on the legislation, and where it’s headed next.

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