For years, people working in New Jersey's recovery community have advocated for a law that would safeguard drug abusers from criminal prosecution if they seek help for an overdose.
New Jersey's proposed Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act would do just that. It stipulates protections for those who report someone suffering an overdose. This law was thrust back into the spotlight last week when the daughter of Jon Bon Jovi suffered a heroin overdose at her college in New York State, which has enacted a similar law. Because of New York's law, she will receive the treatment she needs.
Earlier this year, the Good Samaritan law passed the New Jersey Legislature. Despite the many benefits this measure provides and despite the Legislature's bipartisan support of the bill, Gov. Chris Christie holds a different opinion, and he vetoed it.
I hope he reconsiders.
As a resident of New Jersey, a detoxification expert at Sunrise Detox in Stirling, and a person in recovery, I urge our governor to follow New York's steps and reconsider this important legislation to save lives.
My firsthand experience working each day with those in recovery shows the benefits of the proposed Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act far outweigh any concerns about the amnesty the program allows. The legislation creates the opportunity for more addicts to seek help for their problem, and encourages others to step forward to help a friend or family member.
Moreover, the program lifts a veil of secrecy on college campuses. No longer would students shy away from helping a classmate because of threats of criminal prosecution.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental deaths in this country, surpassing auto accidents. The latest statistics offered show that more than 27,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2007, mostly by prescription drugs, sometimes mixed with alcohol.
We have found at Sunrise Detox that many drug overdoses happen in the company of others, who can easily call for help. But New Jersey is known for its strict drug laws, which is why many of these potential good Samaritans are wary about calling 911.
Calling for help should not be a crime. This is a life or death issue. We can't continue on the same course.
The Good Samaritan law can't be dismissed strictly as an amnesty law that allows drug abusers not to pay a penalty for their crimes. Rather, this needs to be seen as a way to cut through the circle of addiction, helping to keep others clean and serving as a valuable tool in the never-ending war against drugs.
If the governor remains concerned that this law is somehow offering a free pass, I recommend he include as many provisions as he wants in the law. Those would include mandatory counseling over an extended period of time, education, detox and rehabilitation, if addiction professionals deem this necessary.
The bottom line is that the opiate epidemic continues to spread in New Jersey. We hear of countless teens in the suburbs having access to cheap heroin from our cities. We hear of educated professionals at all levels of society addicted to painkillers and other prescription medications. And it seems that heroin and cocaine use is growing, unabated.
Without such measures as the Good Samaritan law - which has been proven successful in other states - my concern is that New Jersey will soon be facing many dark days under the cloud of addiction.
We are talking about sons, daughters, mothers and fathers. We are now witnessing the pain of the Bon Jovi family from an internationally publicized overdose. Will this end when someone close to the governor is put in the same predicament? I ask the governor to keep an open mind when the state Legislature returns this bill to his desk. We need every weapon at our disposal if we are to get control of the widespread drug abuse plaguing our state.
John F. Moriarty III is an addiction expert at the Sunrise Detox Center in Stirling.