The Virginia General Assembly is considering a “good Samaritan” bill that provides protection to those requesting assistance for a drug overdose victim.

Safeguards provided by the bill outline affirmative defense, a legal protection for defendants from prosecution even if they hold criminal liability in the situation. If the reporter of an overdose is also under the influence of a drug or possesses drug paraphernalia, this bill protects them from criminal charges.

“You have an ability to say, 'I did this for a good reason,'” Lawson said. “Usually the way it works is you won't even get arrested when it's built that way.”

The idea for the bill began in the classroom of Associate Professor of Counselor Education Gerard Lawson, who then reached out to Sen. Chap Petersen. Lawson wanted to address the 800-plus lives that were lost in the state of Virginia in 2012 due to drug overdoses.

“From my point of view, one fewer death a year would be significant,” Lawson said.

Lawson intended to remove barriers that have caused people to die of overdose in the past, including friends present during an overdose that chose to call 911.

In his orientation to professional counseling class, Lawson assigns his graduate students a project titled “Advocacy in Action.” It requires students to identify an “issue that's a potential barrier for clients or people to access counseling,” and then contacting a legislative power with their findings.

This year, three of Lawson’s students - independently of one another - identified legislation in 20 other states that protects individuals reporting drug overdoses.

One of the students in Lawson’s class, Victoria Hayes, contacted Sen. Ralph Smith regarding drug overdose reporting legislature.

“If it were passed, it would really go a long way for saving people,” Hayes said.

Personally affected by this issue, Hayes lost a friend a year ago due to drug abuse.

“I think it will be effective, I hope it will be effective,” said Mary Hastings, another student from Lawson’s class. “It might give some people a second chance.”

Using the research of his students as a springboard, Lawson reached out to a former high school classmate, Virginia Senator Chap Petersen. Within an hour of receiving the email, the senator was on board.

“I don't think that's because we went to high school together,” Lawson said. “I think that it's because this is the kind of thing that can save lives.“

When Petersen introduced Senate Bill 892, the “good Samaritan” bill, into the Senate, it passed unanimously. The bill then reached the house, which also approved the bill in vast numbers, though only after tweaking some of the language.

Lawson said the house amended the bill significantly. While the safeguards outlined in the bill – such as possession or being under the influence of illegal drugs – are still protected, legislators added some language saying that you can still be prosecuted.

“So if I come to your dorm room because your roommate is passed out drunk – it's alcohol poisoning or something – and we find guns there, then they could still prosecute you for those sorts of things,” Lawson said.

The bill has been passed back to the Senate and awaits final approval before being sent to Gov. McAuliffe. If he signs the bill, it will be passed into law.

Lawson explained that some opponents of the bill criticize it as providing drug users with a “get of jail free card.”

“It's clear that this isn't about trying to make it so people can use alcohol and drugs with impunity,” Lawson said. “It's about trying to save lives.”

Petersen’s bill received bipartisan support. The Senate approved the bill in a 39 to nothing vote, and the house passed it 90 to 4. Assuming Governor McAuliffe approves the bill, Lawson expects the law to come into effect either this summer or January 2016.

“I was surprised that it's gotten as far as it has in the legislature in the first time out. If it passes, that's going to be fairly remarkable,” Lawson said. “And then the real work starts.”

If signed and passed into law, the next step would be to get the word out. The difficulty is communicating with the drug-using population. For centralized ecosystems such as college campuses, Lawson stated that disseminating information is a “no-brainer.”

“On the other hand, if we're talking about people who are using heroin, that's a much more difficult community to reach,” Lawson said. “They don't have professional associations that say these are the new laws that relate to our groups.”

Lawson thinks this bill will assist in reacting to drug-related incidents. However, he identified need for more proactive measures.

“Traditionally in Virginia - and in the United States, we're not unique - the focus is much more on the law enforcement, on the punitive side of things than it is on the treatment,” Lawson said.

However, he stated that those who request help for drug overdoses are typically treated by police in a “humane way.”

“In the past, most of the time the police would do the right thing. If they got there and someone had called 911, they're usually not going to arrest the other person,” Lawson said. “It's nice to make that the formal policy rather than saying that's based on the interpretation of that individual officer under that individual situation.”

“I think this is also what the university is all about, that this is not just what goes on in the classroom, but how do you take what happens in the classroom and move it out into the community,” Lawson said. “That's what ‘Ut Prosim’ is all about.”

Former managing editor of the Collegiate Times.

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