Press Release  | 08/29/2011

International Overdose Awareness Day is Wednesday, August 31: Drug Overdose is the Leading Cause of Accidental Death in New Jersey

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Advocates Launch New Campaign to Raise Awareness about Drug Overdose and Promote New Policies and Legislation to Save Lives

Families and Friends Who Have Lost Loved Ones to Overdose Speak Out Telling Their Stories and Supporting Policy Change

Trenton—Advocates and affected families are announcing the launch of a new advocacy effort, the Overdose Prevention Campaign.  The campaign will promote public health policies aimed at raising awareness about drug overdose and reducing the number of overdose deaths.

Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says that the effort is needed to address the tragic loss of life caused by drug overdoses in New Jersey.  "Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey," says Scotti. "These deaths are preventable.  We need to bring this heartbreaking problem out of the shadows and implement policies that encourage people to seek help."

Almost 6,000 people have died from drug overdoses in New Jersey since 2004.  More than 700 people died from drug overdoses in New Jersey in 2009 alone.

The first priority for the new campaign is the enactment of a Good Samaritan law, similar to those passed in other states, to encourage people to call 911 and seek emergency medical assistance in cases of overdose.  Although most overdoses occur in the presence of others, fear of arrest and prosecution prevents many people from calling 911.  As a result, medical assistance is summoned in only half of all overdose situations.

To remove barriers to calling 911 and encourage people to seek emergency medical assistance for overdoses, states are enacting Good Samaritan laws to provide limited legal protections for those who call 911.  The chance of surviving an overdose often depends on the speed with which the victim receives appropriate medical care.  Providing limited protection from arrest and prosecution for drug charges encourages those who are present at the scene of an overdose to seek immediate medical assistance.

Four states, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York and Washington State, have enacted Good Samaritan laws aimed at encouraging overdose witnesses to call 911.  In general, these laws provide protection from arrest and prosecution for drug use and possession charges if the evidence for the arrest and prosecution is gained as a result of the person calling 911.  Similar measures are pending in several other states.  Last month, New York became the fourth state to pass a Good Samaritan law with almost unanimous support in the legislature.  Governor Cuomo signed the legislation on July 20th.

In 2008, the US Conference of Mayors unanimously passed a resolution urging all state governments to adopt Good Samaritan policies providing legal protection for overdose victims and witnesses.

"Our current policies focus on punishment and drive people into the shadows and away from help," says Scotti.  "Saving lives should always take priority over punishing behavior.  Calling 911 should never be a crime.  A Good Samaritan law will encourage people to get help."

Advocates hope to get New Jersey's Good Samaritan law introduced when the legislature returns in the fall.  Senator Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex), Vice-Chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, says "Extending good samaritan protection to individuals that witness an overdose will literally save lives.  In an emergency time is of the essence and can be the difference between whether an individual lives, dies or ends up severely and permanently disabled.  We need to remove any fear one may have about calling 911 when they see someone overdose."

Middlesex County had the third highest number of overdose deaths in 2009.

Kim Farinick of Edison, who lost her 22-year-old daughter, Dana, to an overdose, says, "At Dana's wake, a half-dozen people came up to me and told me about someone in their families or someone they knew who died of an overdose.  I know I'm not alone and there are many parents like myself who have sons and daughters who have battled with or are battling addiction—children whose lives are at risk due to potential overdose.  That's why I'm speaking out."

Farinick supports a Good Samaritan law in New Jersey.  "In memory of Dana, I want to prevent future overdose deaths and one way to address this problem is for the State of New Jersey to pass a Good Samaritan law."

Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood lost her son, Salvatore, to an overdose when he was only 27 years old.  "Sal was an amazing son, brother and father–a beautiful soul who unfortunately struggled with addiction.  His death, like so many others in New Jersey, could have been prevented if the people he was with had called 911 for help; but they didn't, most likely for fear of arrest.  Instead of seeking emergency medical services, my son was left alone to die.  I lost my son, and my grandson lost his Daddy, because someone was afraid to call 911.  It's extremely important that we prevent future overdose deaths and spare other families the grief that mine has endured."

The Overdose Prevention Campaign coalition includes Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence New Jersey, National Association of Social Workers New Jersey, Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, South Jersey AIDS Alliance, New Jersey Women and AIDS Network, Atlantic City Syringe Access Program, Well of Hope Drop-in Center in Paterson and the Camden Area Health Education Center.

Roseanne Scotti 609-610-8243 or Tommy McDonald 510-229-5215

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