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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

Why local advocates are rallying to support Missouri's 911 Good Samaritan bill

Alexandra Olgin

A recent study by researchers at Chicago’s Roosevelt University found that between 2007 and 2011, the number of deaths from heroin overdose in the state of Missouri more than tripled. In 2007, fewer than 70 people died from heroin overdose. In 2011, that number ballooned to 244. 

Studies show most accidental overdoses happen in the presence of others. KBIA’s Alexandra Olgin takes us to a rally in Jefferson City on Tuesday supports a bill that could encourage overdose witnesses to be a Good Samaritan and call 911.

Even as the strong wind whipped signs out of their hands, about 50 people rallied on the steps of the Missouri State Capitol. Some of these people are recovering heroin addicts. Others had friends or family members die from heroin overdoses. They’re rallying in support of HB 296 – the 911 Good Samaritan Bill.

If passed, the bill would give some legal protection to people who call 911 for emergency medical attention in cases of life-threatening controlled substance overdose. The bill would prevent the caller and the person who’s overdosing from getting charged with drug possession.

Loretta Boswell is one of the 50 advocates on the steps of the Capitol on Tuesday. She says had this bill been enacted a few years ago, it might have saved her brother.

“He passed away from a heroin overdose on Thanksgiving two years ago,” Boswell said. “It’s a day we’ll never forget.”

Loretta Boswell’s friend Danyel Sapp is a recovering drug addict. Sapp says she’s gone through a life-threatening overdose.

“You think you’re with friends who aren’t just going to leave you in an alley but nine times out of ten, that’s what happens,” Sapp said. “Thank god [Loretta’s] niece, my best friend, didn’t leave me. She called the police. They saved me.”

Sapp said heroin’s increasing prevalence in the streets of Missouri is probably because of its accessibility.

“Honestly, it’s cheaper,” Sapp said. “You can get it for $5 across the river.”

Kathleen Kane-Willis is the lead researcher on the Roosevelt University study that highlighted Missouri’s increasing heroin overdose deaths. She helped organize Tuesday’s rally with Missouri Recovery Network. She said the bill is designed to only protect the overdose victim and the 911 caller -- no one else. 

“The laws are narrowly written to exclude people who are selling drugs, so they would not be provided immunity,” Kane-Willis said. “It is only for people who are in possession of drugs -- and it’s small amount of drugs.”

In the drafted bill, that small amount is about less than three grams of a substance containing narcotics such as heroin, cocaine or morphine. Kane-Willis said the idea of narcotic abusers moving on without legal consequences might bother some law enforcers.

“There is a sense of where is the punishment for that person,” Kane-Willis said. “The way that we respond is no matter what you want from that person once they are dead you cannot get that.”

Credit Alexandra Olgin / KBIA News

Kane-Willis’ study found that Missouri’s drug overdose rate is ranked first in the census region – more than double of Nebraska’s rate, and almost double Iowa’s rate. At 13.1 drug overdoses per 100,000 individuals, Missouri’s rate is significantly higher than the national rate, which is at 11.9 per 100,000.

Although we might think of heroin as a mostly urban problem, the study reported that in recent years, heroin overdose deaths have increased more in rural areas than in cities.

State Rep. Brian Spencer (R-Wentzville) is the sponsor of the bill. Currently, the bill is in the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee, waiting for a hearing date.

Only about 10 other states have a similar law protecting 911 callers or victims when it comes to drug overdoses. In the Midwest, Illinois is the only one that has adopted it thus far.

Harum Helmy started as KBIA's Health and Wealth reporter in January 2013. She has previously worked at the station as a news assistant, helping assign and edit stories by student reporters. Harum grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia and graduated from MU with degrees in journalism and anthropology in 2011. She's trying to finish up an MA in journalism.
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