New Illinois law grants immunity for those reporting a drug overdose

Just before Justin Tokar died of a drug overdose last January in unincorporated Will County, his panicked friend texted people questioning what to do, rather than call 911.

A new law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn Monday would allow people like him to call 911 and report an overdose without fear of facing criminal charges for drug possession.

“If this (law) would have been in place, it would have been a pretty simple decision,” said Tokar's mother, Karen Hanneman of Naperville, who lobbied in favor of the legislation. “Now people can think, ‘I'm not going to be arrested and I can make this call to save his life.'”

The law, which takes effect June 1, grants immunity to people who call 911 to report a drug overdose or who themselves arrive at the hospital suffering from an overdose. There are exceptions, and the law doesn't exempt anyone from drug trafficking charges, said Kathie Kane-Willis, director of Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy and a supporter of the law.

Also, someone found with large amounts of drugs after reporting an overdose could still be charged. With heroin, for instance, immunity would not apply to someone carrying more than three grams.

Critics of the law say it is soft on crime or that it'll have no effect on whether someone would call for help to save a life, but Kane-Willis believes it will reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses.

The consortium released a study in 2010 that concluded there were more deaths from drug overdoses in Illinois than from car accidents. It also found increased heroin use statewide coupled with skyrocketing deaths related to overdoses — in some cases by more than 100 percent in suburban Lake, Will and McHenry countries from 2006-08.

Last year in Naperville, there were seven heroin overdose deaths and many close calls in the emergency room, police said. A forum is planned Monday night at Naperville's 95th Street Library to discuss the problem.

The drug overdose immunity legislation was first filed last February by West Chicago state Sen. John Millner and had numerous co-sponsors.

“The important part is to get the word out that it's OK to call 911. Don't be afraid. Call,” Kane-Willis said.

Illinois becomes the fifth state in the nation (with New Mexico, Washington, Connecticut and New York) to grant limited immunity to drug users who are overdosing and to those who reach out on behalf of a drug user who is overdosing.

In Illinois, the grass-roots coalition that worked for passage of the new law included parents who lost children to overdose, researchers, Roosevelt University students in Kane-Willis' Drugs, Alcohol and Society class, Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Illinois and drug-treatment providers.

Free drug testing kits available to parents

The Rising Tide of Heroin Abuse in Naperville

<b>What</b>: School, police and community leaders talk about drug problems in the community

<b>When</b>: 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13

<b>Where</b>: 95th Street Library meeting room, 3015 Cedar Glade Drive, Naperville

<b>Other</b>: Free, open to the public, and no reservation required.

<b>Info</b>: Lisa West, Naperville Police Department, (630) 961-4100, ext. 2231

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