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posted: 5/8/2011 6:00 AM

Lawmakers ponder immunity in overdose cases

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  • Retired Chicago police officer John Roberts holds photograph of him and his 19-year-old son Billy, who died from a heroin overdose in 2009. Roberts is an advocate of a bill moving through the General Assembly that would offer legal immunity to drug users who overdose and to the person who calls for medical assistance to save them.

      Retired Chicago police officer John Roberts holds photograph of him and his 19-year-old son Billy, who died from a heroin overdose in 2009. Roberts is an advocate of a bill moving through the General Assembly that would offer legal immunity to drug users who overdose and to the person who calls for medical assistance to save them.
    Associated Press

 
By Zachary Colman
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Kathie Kane-Willis faced a life-and-death dilemma: Her boyfriend's lips were blue. He was going into cardiac arrest from a drug overdose. Would she be arrested if she called the authorities for help?

If a law had been in place offering legal immunity to drug users who overdose and the person who calls for medical assistance to save them, Kane-Willis would have had an easier decision.

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Along with the parents of overdose victims, she now is one of the principal advocates of a bill moving through the Illinois General Assembly that would offer that immunity. Opponents fear the legislation would let drug abusers and dealers off the hook, but Kane-Willis and other supporters say it's simply meant to save lives.

Now director of Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, Kane-Willis said she knew what to do in the case of her boyfriend back in 1989. She ultimately made the call for help, but she didn't count on the decision being so difficult.

"My boyfriend had known of people who had been dumped in the woods," said Kane-Willis, who was 20 at the time. "I always thought I would call 911, no question. But when there's a bunch of people yelling at you not to, it takes a formidable will to overcome that."

The legislation was proposed as drug overdoses -- heroin in particular -- have become widespread across Illinois and the rest of the country. The Illinois Department of Public Health said there were 805 overdose-related deaths in 2007, the last year for which data is available. That's an 11 percent increase from 2000, when there were 722 deaths.

Many of these deaths have occurred in suburban communities surrounding large cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Boston. For example, there have been 55 heroin overdose deaths in Will County since 2009, according to Kane-Willis.

The proposed legislation is now being considered in the Illinois House after being passed -- and amended -- by the Senate. Originally, the bill had no limits for the amount of drugs emergency callers could possess and still earn immunity. But the bill was changed in the Senate to limit the amounts of possession -- for example, to less than three grams of a substance containing heroin.

People under investigation for drug trafficking also would not be eligible for immunity.

Advocates said that, in addition to saving lives, the initiative could help police gather information about drug use and might help get more addicts into drug rehabilitation. But law enforcement officials said the bill should be tougher on drug users.

The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police prefers offering legal immunity solely to the person who overdoses. Instead of immunity for callers, they suggest the matter be left to the discretion of judges, who could take the caller's actions into account when sentencing for drug possession.

"By doing the right thing, you're going to be rewarded with the fact that you did the right thing," said Laimutis Nargelenas, a lobbyist for the chiefs organization. "So it's a personal issue. And the prosecutor and the judge can take that into consideration."

Another advocate of the bill is retired Chicago Police Capt. John Roberts, whose 19-year-old son, Billy, died of an overdose.

Roberts said it wasn't until one of his daughters heard Billy going into cardiac arrest that Roberts knew of his son's heroin habit. Billy survived that overdose, thanks to 911. But he didn't make it through the next one in September 2009.

"When I retired, I moved out to the suburbs," Roberts said. "I thought it was the American dream, a big, beautiful home. ... What I didn't know is kids out there are bored to death. There's not much to do, so drugs are a main form of entertainment."

Roberts founded a counseling group -- Heroine Epidemic Relief Organization -- for relatives of youths who died of overdoses.

He said focusing more on rehabilitating than incarcerating chronic drug users would be less expensive for the nation's overcrowded jails and more effective. He said the Illinois bill -- which is similar to versions adopted in New Mexico and Washington and to one passed by one Florida legislative chamber -- would help begin that process.

The retired officer stressed that the primary mission of the police is to protect people.

"The best thing we can do is save the person's life," he said, "and sort everything out later, as it comes."

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