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Aldermanic panel approves 'good Samaritan law' in effort to fight overdose deaths

Chad Sabora of the Missouri Network for Opioid Reform and Recovery answers question from the public safety committee on May 24, 2016.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

The public safety committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved Tuesday a measure that supporters say will reduce the number of fatal heroin overdoses in the city.

The so-called "good Samaritan law" would give heroin users immunity from drug possession charges if they call 911 for someone who has overdosed. They could still be arrested for other crimes, or if a warrant has been issued against them.

"This is the exact opposite of soft on crime," said Rachel Smith, the chief prosecutor in the circuit attorney's community partnerships bureau. "What we are trying to do is encourage people who are in a very vulnerable situation to call the police, to call medical providers and get help." Last year, 130 people in St. Louis died of drug overdoses, Smith said.

Chad Sabora, a co-founder of the Missouri Network for Opioid Reform and Recovery, stopped using drugs in 2011 after battling addiction for five years. He spoke in favor of the bill but said any relief provided to a person using drugs by the law will be very short.

"That person that just got that little pass will eventually either get clean, find recovery or they will catch another case. So what’s more important?" Sabora said. "Do we put the value on another arrest? Or do we put the value on human life?"

Sabora said the immunity will become even more important when St. Louis implements its prescription drug monitoring program, limiting access to painkillers.

"Once you get addicted to opiates, if you get cut off from your supply, you will move onto the next available opiate. And for prescription pain pill abusers, that will be heroin," he said.

That opioid addiction has reached crisis levels in St. Louis isn't in dispute. But Alderman Antonio French, D-20th Ward, said he was worried that the good Samaritan law, while well-intentioned, would be enforced unevenly.

"We don’t want to come back 10 years later and find out that white kids who are from St. Louis County or St. Charles County who come to the city to buy drugs are treated differently than St. Louis city or north side African-American residents who are arrested for the same exact crime," French said.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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