A proposal heading to the state Senate floor would offer limited immunity to people who call 911 to report a drug overdose.
Law enforcement officials and county attorneys oppose the "Good Samaritan" provision, but advocates say it would save lives.
The measure is included in a bill proposed by state Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, to allow Minnesota police officers and trained lay-people to carry and administer a drug called Narcan that reverses opiate overdoses.
The Senate Judiciary Committee recommended the bill for passage on Friday and sent it to the Senate floor.
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Hennepin County Medical Center addiction medicine specialist Dr. Charles Reznikoff said people are more likely to call police to get help for overdose victims if they aren't afraid of being arrested or put in prison. Reznikoff helped Northfield respond to a surge of heroin overdoses in the mid-2000s.
"What really happened in that community is that the drug users had become estranged from law enforcement; they'd become estranged from anyone who could help them," Reznikoff said. "I saw viscerally, firsthand, people die because they feared law enforcement — they feared repercussions."
While law enforcement agencies support Eaton's efforts to make Narcan more widely available, they opposed the Good Samaritan provisions.
John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said offering automatic immunity to those reporting overdoses would interfere with law enforcement's ability to investigate drug cases.
"Our main concern is that law enforcement and prosecution needs the ability to move up the supply chain if you will, to stop the people who are supplying illegal drugs to our communities," Kingrey said.
County attorneys support a provision in the House version of the bill that allows prosecutors to consider the report of an overdose as a "mitigating factor" when deciding whether to press charges.
During hearing, state Sen. Ron Latz, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned whether that language would be enough to convince drug users to call the police.
"What I hear is that the persons making the call wouldn't trust the prosecutors to actually exercise discretion and thus simply would not make the call," said Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. "I'd rather they made the call and find out it's an overdose than not find out that it was."
The Senate bill's Good Samaritan provision is also opposed in its current form by both the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association and Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, spoke for both organizations at Friday's hearing.
Franklin said he believes some law enforcement officers have successfully argued that people reporting an overdose deserve immunity. He said many officers recognize the reality that some people fear prosecution.
"Anybody can dial 911. You don't have to give your name, you don't have to stay on the line, and you don't have to stay with the person," Franklin said during the hearing. "You can at least alert authorities that there's a bad situation that deserves immediate attention."
Eaton said offering immunity is necessary to lower the actual number of overdose deaths in the state.
"If there's a possibility that people aren't going to call, it's a choice between getting an arrest on probably another low-level addict or somebody dying," Eaton said.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia currently offer some form of limited immunity for reporting drug overdoses. Eaton based the current language of her bill on a similar law passed last year that gives immunity to underage drinkers who call 911 to report alcohol poisonings.
Eaton said the Senate committee's recommendation that the bill pass despite the concerns of law enforcement is a bittersweet victory. Her daughter, Ariel Eaton-Willson, died of a heroin overdose in 2007.
"At least it puts some meaning to it," Eaton said after the hearing. "She lost her life, but maybe I can save other lives through this action — and that really does give me some comfort."
A House version of the bill is scheduled to be heard next week in the Civil Law Committee. If that committee recommends its passage, it will head to the House floor for a vote then to a conference committee where legislators will reconcile differences in the bills' language.