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St. Louis looking at different ways to control addiction crisis

Michael Velardo | Flickr

Lawmakers, prosecutors, and first responders are hoping that two bills introduced Friday at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen will help control the region's opioid addiction crisis.

The first bill, sponsored by aldermen Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, Dionne Flowers, D-2nd Ward, and Megan-Ellyia Green, D-15 Ward, would set up a prescription drug monitoring programsimilar to one in place in St. Louis County. The second, which is sponsored by Spencer and Krewson, is a "good Samaritan" bill intended to convince more people to call 911 when people overdose.

"There’s a fear of getting arrested for the drugs involved in the drug overdose," said Spencer, who lost a cousin to a heroin overdose. "In the event of a medical emergency, the number one priority should be saving the person’s life."

The amnesty will only cover municipal drug possession charges, not state crimes, but the process would work similarly to low-level marijuana cases, said Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce. Her office would review drug possession cases for ones where this new ordinance might apply and refer them to the municipal court for prosecution. That's when the amnesty would kick in. It would not apply to outstanding warrants or to other crimes like weapons possession.

"We don't want people to be thinking twice about calling for 911, because we have ways to save lives of people and we have too many deaths from heroin overdoses," Joyce said. Addiction is also a personal issue for her -- the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in March that her stepson was arrested for heroin possession and trespassing. 

Fear of arrest is real, said Chad Sabora, a co-founder of the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery who used heroin on and off for 17 years.

"A lot of people do call for help, so I won’t say they don’t. Some do," Sabora said. "But a lot of us run because we’re scared. I’ve been in those situations before. I know it all too well, and I know that this is a solution to that problem."

Drug monitoring database

With a statewide version still stalled, the city is also hoping to implement a prescription drug monitoring program. Missouri remains the last state without such a database, which allows doctors to track opioid prescriptions.

The city's law calls for coordination with St. Louis County, which set up its own database in March. It would require doctors who prescribe drugs with the potential for abuse to submit information about the prescription to the database within seven days. It's designed to make sure individuals cannot go to multiple doctors for pain medications, as happened to Kathi Arbini's son, Kevin Mullane. He died of an overdose in 2009 at the age of 21.

"We cleaned out his truck and he had nine prescription bottles, nine different doctors, all pain meds," she said. He was a doctor-shopper, so the PDMP surely would have helped him. It makes me feel good that we're finally getting somewhere."

Both Joyce and Spencer said the implementation of a drug monitoring program may lead those addicted to prescription pain pills to turn to heroin instead.

"Alderwoman Spencer's (Good Samaritan) legislation will hopefully prevent many of those people dying as a result," Joyce said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.