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Laws aim to curb heroin epidemic and deaths


A man drove his incoherent, overdosing friend to a York City park and left him sitting in his car overnight, without medical attention, because he was afraid to get police involved. The friend died.

In another case, a woman waited six hours to call 911 after her friend overdosed in a hotel room. She sent texts to friends, asking them what to do, and posted photos of him "napping" on Facebook. He also died.

Stories like these became tragically overfamiliar as heroin addiction rose to crisis levels in Pennsylvania over the past few years, and lawmakers decided the only way to stop it was to tell people they wouldn't be prosecuted for reporting overdoses.

The law that created that immunity is part of a growing response from police and legislators trying to stem both the spread of addiction and a swelling number of overdose deaths.

Good Samaritan: Under the good Samaritan law passed last year, a person who reports drug overdoses will be immune from prosecution for probation and parole violations and lower-level drug offenses if he or she provides his or her full name and address and other identifying information and waits for emergency responders to arrive.

The overdose victim would not be charged.

Parents of fatal overdose victims said they're hoping the law will save lives, though it's too late for their own children.

Tracy Lawrence's son Aaron Lawrence died in July 2010, and he was found in a Hanover house where she believes some other drug users hastened his demise by waiting hours to call 911.

"Real friends don't let friends die," Tracy Lawrence said. "(People who don't immediately call 911 are) going to want to save their ass before they even try to help yours."

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said it's still too early to tell what kind of effect the law is having on death rates, as it didn't take effect until late 2014.

He and other officials said they're working to spread word about the law change to heroin users, using forums such as meetings of the York County Heroin Task Force, a partnership of medical, community and governmental agencies formed in 2014 to educate the community and reduce heroin abuse.

Overdose antidote: Lawmakers also included provisions for police to purchase and carry naloxone, a drug administered to people who overdose on prescription painkillers or heroin.

York County will use about $15,000 in drug forfeiture funds to purchase 325 doses of the medication, which will be carried on all police officers on the beat, Kearney said, adding his office will apply to have that money reimbursed. In December, Capital BlueCross announced it will hand out $50,000 in funding to 21 counties to buy the drug.

Kearney's office expects the antidote will be distributed to police by the end of March.

Commonly called by the brand name Narcan, the medicine is sprayed into a person's nostrils to block opioid receptors and temporarily restore respiration, buying time for medical crews to arrive and perform the additional steps necessary to keep the person from slipping back into an overdose.

Police have said they arrive before medical technicians in most cases, and there have been situations in which they might have been able to save lives if they had had naloxone.

Before the law change, paramedics and doctors were permitted to administer the antidote, but police were not.

Prescription plan: A law passed in 2014 will create a database of controlled substances prescribed and dispensed in the state, with a goal of identifying doctor-shopping and addicted patients.

The drugs to be added include OxyContin and oxycodone, and benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan).

Under the law, doctors will have to query the database the first time a new patient comes for an office visit, viewing his or her prescription record to determine whether there are "doctor-shopping" behaviors such as having multiple prescriptions of the targeted drugs prescribed by different doctors.

The pharmacist or person filling a prescription for any of the drugs would have to add it — as well as the name of the prescribing doctor, the patient's name, the date and the quantity — to the database.

Doctors could also choose to search the database if a patient continues to request one or more of the targeted drugs or if the doctor has some suspicion about a patient's behavior.

The doctor wouldn't be prohibited from prescribing them just because the patient has prescriptions in the database, but they should use their discretion based on medical standards, said Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland/York, who introduced the legislation.

She said the new law can identify people who might need help before they turn to heroin, the path followed by many people who started their addictions with prescriptions.

The bill takes effect June 30, 2015, and will expire on the same day in 2022, unless the Legislature extends it.

— Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.