Pubdate: Wed, 09 Aug 2006
Source: Daily Universe (Brigham Young U, UT Edu)
Copyright: 2006 The Daily Universe
Author: Katie Laird
Drug overdose fatalities a result of fear
They said they were his friends, but he didn't know that fear was
their master and a merciless one; it demanded his life and they gave
it willingly. When he collapsed on the floor, struggling for breath
after accidentally overdosing on heroin, they decided a call to 911
was too much to risk - the possibility of arrest for possession held
greater dread than his imminent death. They hid the drugs in the
backyard and fled, abandoning their friend to die alone.
When Andrew Plumb's body was discovered ten years ago, police wanted
to investigate his death as a homicide, but his father knew better.
"My son was a heroin addict," Salt Lake resident Jack Plumb said.
"His death was not a homicide. He died of a drug overdose."
In the last several months, overdoses of heroin laced with the
painkiller fentanyl have claimed over 400 lives across the country,
and Utah is not exempt from the problem. In 2004, approximately 190
Utahns shared Plumb's death, and in 1999, drug overdose was the
leading cause of death for Salt Lake County males ages 15-44,
according to the Harm Reduction project, a drug addict help center in
When 18-year-old Amelia Sorich's friends dumped her body in a
Bountiful field after she overdosed last summer, Utah residents
caught a glimpse of a growing problem in their midst, and there are
those who are demanding justice for those who watch their friends die
According to Plumb, drugs have been a problem in Salt Lake City for
years but it takes events like this to wake people up.
It's hard not to cringe when statistics such as those gathered by a
1996 San Francisco General Hospital Study found that 94 percent of
those with initial pulses who receive emergency medical services
after an opiate overdose survive. With 71 percent of injectors having
witnessed at least one overdose, chances are that many of these
deaths could have been easily preventable.
Frustrated law enforcement officers finally contacted House
Representative Carol Moss, D-Holladay, and solicited her help to
sponsor a bill that they hoped would provide strong motivation for
witnesses to an overdose to call 911.
Moss, haunted by the similar death of one of her former students,
embraced the initiative and subsequently drafted House Bill 391,
making it a class B misdemeanor to not report a drug overdose to authorities.
"We have nothing that we can charge these people with, and yet they
just callously disregard someone's stress because they're worried
about the charge of possession," Moss said.
Opposition killed the bill in February and dumped it on the shoulders
of an interim study committee for further research. The disparate
voices are coming from a few surprising sources, Jack Plumb being one
of the loudest.
"I'm a parent that lost a child, and in society's world that's not
supposed to happen," he said. "As parents we have to look at the
reality of our children's choices."
Plumb said he thinks the state should focus on helping the youth in
making right choices instead of punishing them for the natural result
of inexperience and immaturity. As he sees it, the people who left
his son did so because they were afraid of reprisal.
"This is not a judicial issue," he said. "It's a medical emergency.
My son was left on the floor to die because they were afraid. This
bill, in my opinion, would just make them more afraid."
The State Division of Substance Abuse, state prosecutors and numerous
substance abuse help centers opposed the bill as well, one they
believe would have given even more cause of fear to those already
determined to avoid jail at the cost of their friends' lives.
"There are many parents who have lost children because no call to 911
was made, and that resulted from fearing police," said Luciano
Colonna, executive director of the Harm Reduction Project in Salt
Lake. "To add another sanction to that would just exacerbate the
situation. We're using law as a fallback strategy because we're
failing in all these other areas."
The Harm Reduction Project decided to focus its efforts on what it
calls the "making it safe to call 911" campaign. Theirs mirrors
efforts of organizations around the country trying to collaborate
with law enforcement in order to prevent arrests of those calling 911.
Naloxone, an antidote designed to slow the effects of a heroin
overdose, is now being distributed at some needle exchange programs
through prescriptions from physicians. But this is no miracle drug -
in most cases the antidote will just buy time; time needed for
emergency personnel to arrive.
And as more time passes, the more lives heroin will claim unless
steps are taken to deal with the problem, according to Moss.
"You have responsibility toward someone who's in distress," she said.
"You shouldn't have to die for making a bad choice."