House kills bill limiting overdose prosecution

By Chris Suarez
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Legislation protecting Virginians reporting drug overdoses was introduced earlier this month after years of lobbying by a Virginia Commonwealth University student organization, but the bill will have to wait to be heard during next year’s General Assembly.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy was the VCU group instrumental in helping introduce House Bill 557, Safe Reporting of Overdoses. The legislation sought to provide limited legal amnesty to anyone reporting an overdose.

The bill aimed to protect anyone experiencing or witnessing a drug overdose — whether from a controlled substance or synthetic cannabinoid — said VCU SSDP co-president and treasurer Rose Bono.

“According to the office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, hundreds of people die every year from unintentional drug overdoses,” Bono said. “This is an important issue to the public health of Virginia.”

The bill also provided protections for minors suffering from an alcohol-related overdose, addressing an issue common to colleges and universities throughout the country. “We’ve met parents and relatives of those who have died of overdose,” said the bill’s chief patron Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond. “This is an attempt to save those lives.”

The bill was heard in the Court of Justice subcommittee earlier this week. After deliberation, the subcommittee recommended “laying it on the table,” essentially ending discussion on the bill during this session of the General Assembly, said VCU SSDP president Jurriaan Van Den Hurk.

Bono and Van Den Hurk said the VCU group plans to continue addressing the issue in the future.

Bono adds that the drafting of this legislation has been in the works over the course of several years, with help from former organization leaders and the national SSDP office. After much lobbying and organizing, Carr adopted the issue by becoming chief patron of the bill.

The national SSDP office encourages its local chapters to lobby for regulations in their respective universities that would protect students experiencing overdoses. Because VCU falls under the jurisdiction of Richmond, university officials told members of the SSDP they would have to appeal to city legislators to adopt a law for the commonwealth.

During the subcommittee meeting, Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, motioned to table the bill, citing unintended consequences the bill could cause, such as providing amnesty to drug dealers selling far more harmful adulterated drugs.

“If someone was selling a bad batch of heroin and making people sick, and the police would show up at an overdose caused by that, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it,” Van Den Hurk said. “They [the subcommittee] said the bill wasn’t written well enough to account for those loose ends.”

Van Den Hurk says the organization isn’t giving up on the issue. They will wait to see which members will take up leadership roles and shape a new policy to address the issue once he and Bono graduate this semester.

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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