Kevin Smith, shown with his mother Patricia Smith, has been...

Kevin Smith, shown with his mother Patricia Smith, has been clean for six months after being addicted to heroin. (June 29, 2010) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Each time he overdosed, recovering heroin addict Kevin Smith was fortunate enough to have friends who called 911 for help. But many times, say experts, those who watch someone in the throes of an overdose don't call for help because they fear they will be arrested.

The Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence is trying to change that. It is lobbying for a law that would give limited immunity from prosecution for possessing a small amount of drugs, or alcohol for minors, to people seeking emergency medical help for themselves or someone else overdosing, director Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds said at a news conference last week at the Long Island Council's offices in Ronkonkoma.

"There's a one- to three-hour window before an overdose becomes a fatality," said Reynolds. "It's enough time to save a life." Most overdose victims survive if they get the help, he added.

The proposed law was introduced by state Sen. Thomas Duane and Assemb. Richard Gottfried, both Democrats from Manhattan, last year, but it stalled. The Long Island Council is hoping to get it passed this session, said Reynolds, who pointed to statistics showing at least one person a day on Long Island dies of a drug overdose, and most are entirely preventable. "We can't go through a long, hot summer where we're losing kids needlessly," he said at the news conference.

There are limitations to the bill. People who have outstanding warrants or who are selling drugs or possess a large amount of drugs would still be subject to prosecution, Reynolds said.

Gottfried said he expects it will pass in the Assembly this session. "We hear all too many stories of people who die needlessly," he said. The New York State Nurses Association and U.S. Conference of Mayors also support the idea of the law. Duane said the bill is still under review by the state Senate.

The Suffolk district attorney's office said prosecutors need to further review the bill before commenting. The Nassau district attorney's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Other states have enacted similar laws, including Massachusetts and California. More than 100 colleges have enacted related policies. At Cornell University, said Reynolds, calls for help in overdoses doubled the year after the policy was enacted in 2002.

Smith, of Oakdale, and parents of three young people who have died of drug overdoses spoke at the news conference in support of the bill. Among them was Teri Kroll of Copiague, whose son, Timothy, 23, died of a drug overdose in 2009 after OxyContin prescribed for headaches and depression led to his heroin addiction. Her son died alone in bed, but she believes this law will help other children get the help they need. Smith, who has seen overdoses up close, agrees.

"I've lost a number of friends, just because [others] were afraid to call," said Smith.

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