Georgia has taken a significant step forward on criminal justice reform in recent years. The Right on Crime-based initiatives enacted by the legislature in 2011 are saving taxpayers $20 million per year, according to Gov. Nathan Deal. Separately, Georgia appears to be taking steps to legalize the use of cannabis oil for medical purposes.
These reforms are a departure from the traditional “tough on crime” approach that lawmakers have taken in the past. But reforming Georgia’s approach to criminal justice shouldn’t end at the budgetary bottomline. The human cost should also be considered.
On Thursday, the Georgia House of Representatives passed two measures — HB 965 and HB 966 — that would address rising, very serious problems in the state.
The first measure, HB 965 (Georgia 9-1-1 Medical Amnesty Law), would grant amnesty to accidental overdose victims of illicit drugs as well those who report the incidents.
Rose Marie Brannen, a student at Emory University, has been lobbying lawmakers to enact the medical amnesty law, and for good reason: she believes it could have saved her brother’s life.
“I got involved with this because my younger brother died of a drug overdose on a synthetic hallucinogen at a spring break party last March,” Brannen told me via email. “He was visibly, obviously in distress and having seizures off and on for two hours in a room full of a dozen mostly sober people before he died.”
“They knew he was in trouble. There was a hospital 1.5 miles away from the house,” she said. “The only reason he isn’t alive today is because his friends were too afraid to call 9-1-1.”
As of September 2013, fourteen other states had “9-1-1 Good Samaritan” laws already on the books, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. North Carolina is the only state in the south to have passed a medical amnesty law.
The other measure, HB 966, would loosen access to naloxone, a drug used that could be used first responders to reverse the effects of opioids and save lives.
The Huffington Post, for example, recently shared the story of Kathy Fletcher, an Atlanta resident and cancer patient whose life may have been saved by naloxone.
Fletcher had taken a legally prescribed dose of OxyContin, a powerful pain medication, and experiencing respiratory failure and her blood pressure fell dramatically.
“When they gave me [naloxone], it was like being jolted awake,” Fletcher told the Huffington Post. “I was very aware and hyper-sensitive to everything. The doctors in the ICU were talking, but it felt like they were screaming. Everything was louder, bigger, bolder.”
Unfortunately, Fletcher had another, similar experience. She now keeps naloxone on hand, which she obtained legally in North Carolina, but is at risk in Georgia due to the lack of a medical amnesty law.
Brannen and the advocacy group with which she’s affiliated, Georgia Overdose Prevention, argue that passing medical amnesty laws would save lives at no cost to taxpayers.
“There were roughly 700 drug overdose deaths [in the state in 2012], even though most people use drugs around other people,” Brannen said. “There is a mountain of evidence out there that medical amnesty policies and greater access to naloxone prevent deaths.”
“A private organization has agreed to foot the bill for all first responders in the state to be outfitted with this drug. These policies cost us nothing to implement, but the cost of not implementing them is huge,” she added.
Both measures passed the state House before “Crossover Day” and have been assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
State Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), who chairs the committee, is carrying both measures in the upper chamber. The senator said that a hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday.