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Suffolk Legislature backs bill on drug overdoses

Kevin Smith, shown with his mother Patricia Smith,

Kevin Smith, shown with his mother Patricia Smith, has been clean for six months after being addicted to heroin. Each time he overdosed, Smith was fortunate enough to have friends who called 911 for help. (June 29, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Suffolk County Legislature Wednesday threw its support behind proposed state legislation that would give limited immunity from prosecution to someone seeking medical help for himself or someone else in the midst of a drug overdose if the person seeking help possesses a small amount of drugs - or alcohol for minors.

"It's about saving a life," said Legis. Lynne Nowick (R-St. James) at a news conference in Hauppauge, flanked by most of the county's legislators and representatives from community groups. "It's about saving a life at a party that our own kids go to."

In all, 30 community organizations support the 911 Good Samaritan bill, from South Oaks Hospital in Amityville to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Nowick read statistics from the county's medical examiner showing overdose deaths for those under 26 years old rose from 188 in 2005 to 225 in 2009. "We have a problem," she said.

Often, addiction treatment experts say, people won't call for help because they may be on drugs themselves or are holding drugs and are afraid of prosecution. Experts say there is a 1- to 3-hour window before an overdose becomes a fatality, and the patient almost always survives if treated within that time.

The legislation, introduced by state Sen. Thomas Duane and Assemb. Richard Gottfried, both Democrats from Manhattan, passed the Assembly on July 1 but did not reach the Senate before it recessed.

Treatment experts said the timing to pass the bill is important, because summer brings more parties where young people are using drugs.

The legislation has limitations. Those with outstanding warrants, and those who are selling drugs or possessing a large amount of drugs, would still be subject to prosecution.

Other states have passed similar laws to combat the surge in heroin overdoses in the past few years.

All 18 Suffolk legislators signed a letter to Gov. David A. Paterson asking that he sign the bill into law: "While we in the Suffolk County Legislature certainly recognize the importance of enforcing state and local laws, we believe that additional consideration must be given when it comes to preventing needless deaths."

A spokeswoman for the Suffolk district attorney's office, which prosecutes drug crimes, said it was still reviewing the law. The Nassau district attorney's office said, "While we are still in the process of reviewing this particular bill, the office certainly supports the goal of the legislation, which is to get medical help to those in need."

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