Saving Lives in Florida

Saving Lives in Florida

On April 6th, 2012, Governor Rick Scott signed Florida’s 911 Good Samaritan Act (SB 278). Although the law won’t technically take effect until October 1st, Florida is now the 13th state to enact some form of Good Samaritan legislation. More specifically, Florida is now the 6th state to extend immunity to possession of controlled substances (joining NM, WA, CT, NY, and IL) and the 6th state to add help-seeking as a mitigating factor (joining NM, AK, MD, WA, UT, and IL).

ORIGINS OF FLORIDA’S 911 GOOD SAMARITAN ACT:

From 2003 to 2009, a total of 16,550 drug overdose deaths were recorded by Florida medical examiners. The annual number of deaths increased 61.0%, from 1,804 to 2,905. In 2009, approximately eight drug overdose deaths occurred each day.

In order to learn more about the nature of Florida’s overdose epidemic, law enforcement officials conducted in-depth case reviews of 353 overdose deaths that occurred in Palm Beach County from 2007 through 2010. This study revealed that 66% of overdose deaths occurred while others were present. Furthermore, 56% of the time witnesses were aware that the decedent had overdosed and 38% of the time witnesses recognized that the decedent needed medical help. Despite that fact that witnesses were commonly present and aware of the need for medical assistance, only 25% of overdose decedents were taken to a hospital. These findings heightened concern among law enforcement officials that fear of police involvement might be deterring a 911 call or contributing to the abandonment of overdose victims. Working with representatives from the Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education Task Force, they began looking into potential sponsors for legislation modeled on bills enacted in New Mexico and Washington.

During the 2011 session, Rep. Mack Bernard (D-West Palm Beach), a Florida State University alumni, and Sen. Maria Sachs (D-Boca Raton) filed Florida’s 911 Good Samaritan Act. Florida’s 911 Good Samaritan Act protects people who seek or obtain medical assistance from prosecution for possession of a controlled substance. This law is designed to save lives because when someone in America overdoses, a call for help is made less than 50% of the time and fear of police involvement is the most common reason for not calling 911.

Florida’s 911 Good Samaritan Act came remarkably close to final passage during the 2011 session and received widespread, bipartisan support. House Bill 91 passed unanimously with 119 yeas. The Senate companion (Senate Bill 1146) moved unanimously through two committees before it simply ran out of time. Members ofFlorida State University’s SSDP chapter were present at every committee hearing, passionately articulating the case for this life-saving legislation. Amongst them was Jon Bowes, who was recently elected as the new President of the FSU chapter. “The chairman of one committee thanked SSDP specifically, saying he was encouraged by seeing young people supporting their beliefs. It was unfortunate to see such a sensible bill with strong support not progress further than it did merely because of time constraints,” said Bowes. FSU SSDP contacts also facilitated endorsements from the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the Florida Sheriffs Association, and the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.

SUCCESS

2012 would prove to be the year for Florida’s 911 Good Samaritan Act. Despite a few obstacles, including a brief period where the bill was temporarily postponed after a legislative aide and committee staff failed to adequately address questions about the scope of the immunity, once again the bill received overwhelming bipartisan support.

Once the bill cleared the Legislature, SSDP mobilized chapters across the state to urge the Governor to sign it, including creating action centers to generate positive communication toward Gov. Scott and generating media to help spread awareness of the bill.

FSU SSDP chapter Public Relations Chair, James Tarkington, began engaging in extensive media outreach, disseminating press releases at the Florida Press Center to generate positive coverage. “It’s very important that the public know about this new law,” said Tarkington. “Everyone is a potential witness to an overdose; so every single person you tell could save a life, even if they don’t tell anyone else.”

A letter penned by former FSU SSDP chapter President Cody Swingle was published, in most cases entirely unedited, by three major Florida newspapers:

 

The calls to action issued by SSDP and the Drug Policy Alliance are available here:

 

FEEDBACK

At least four Florida news outlets published content supporting the enactment of the Good Samaritan Act:

 

FSU’s campus newspaper, the FSView, also did a featurette on FSU’s chapter, highlighting their advocacy on behalf of the statewide law:

Cody Swingle noted the significance of this victory: “Florida is now a leader in reform among a handful of states with this policy. I’ll never dismiss my state as being too conservative to enact sensible reforms because it is now clear that the door is open.” Swingle lead FSU’s chapter as they educated and advocated through two challenging and unpredictable legislative sessions. “It feels great being a part of this victory. Watching this bill die and then make a triumphant comeback the next year makes me incredibly hopeful for future reform,” he said.

NEXT STEPS: EDUCATING FLORIDA AND BRINGING CAMPUS POLICIES IN LINE WITH STATEWIDE POLICY

In Florida, the only universities that have enacted a Good Samaritan policy are Lynn University, Rollins College, the University of Florida, the University of Tampa, and the University of Central Florida. Ensuring that every other university in Florida enacts a comprehensive Good Samaritan policy is SSDP’s next objective.

Looking ahead, SSDP leaders in Florida are preparing to launch a website and other promotional materials to increase awareness of the law and knowledge of its protections. SSDP chapter Presidents and officials from universities that have already enacted Good Samaritan policies are drafting an open letter to the Boards of Trustees and University Presidents at the remaining state universities without a campus policy. Targeted awareness campaigns also need to be developed for police officers and individuals who are most at risk for witnessing or experiencing an overdose (who can often be found in prisons/jails, addiction treatment facilities, pain management clinics, emergency departments, and bars).

When Florida’s 911 Good Samaritan Act was first introduced in 2011, Florida State University’s SSDP chapter was already well-versed in the evidence supporting these policies and the various reforms proposed in other states and schools across the country. In October of 2009, members of FSU’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy presented a Good Samaritan policy proposal to the Healthy Campus Committee and representatives from the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. The proposal was well-received, particularly by representatives from the FSU Police Department. FSU’s chapter is currently preparing to obtain final approval for their proposed Good Samaritan policy, which they expect the Vice President of Student Affairs to bring before the Board of Trustees this June.

The enactment of the statewide legislation is bolstering efforts to expand the number of universities with campus-based policies in the Sunshine State. At the University of South Florida in Tampa, the Dean of Students requested that SSDP chapter President Evan Eisenberg submit a draft policy for consideration.  Eisenberg recently submitted a draft to USF attorneys and administrators and says that so far the response has been positive. “Even the few administrators with reservations were quickly persuaded that swift implementation of the policy was necessary,” Eisenberg said. “In fact, I think the only disagreement we had was whether to call it a Good Samaritan Policy or a Medical Amnesty Policy.”

The proposed policy would apply to possession and use of alcohol or controlled substances and extends to an unlimited number of Good Samaritans who act together to get help for anyone experiencing a medical emergency. Eisenberg highly recommends that other chapters get as involved as they can in the process of drafting a policy proposal, but he cautions that drafting and enacting the policy is merely the first stage of a broader campaign. “Submitting a draft  is really just the beginning of our campaign to save overdose victims. Once the policy is official, we will help the university spread awareness. Because the policy was not official as of the printing of the student handbooks for the 2012-2013 academic year, we need to be particularly aggressive in promoting awareness of both the USF policy and the statewide law,” Eisenberg said.

At Florida International University in Miami, the statewide law is expected to ease the enactment of similar protections from university sanctions. FIU SSDP chapter President Laura Gonzalez said that their newly formed chapter is making the adoption of a Good Samaritan policy their top priority. “Our efforts will also focus on spreading the word on campus, letting students know that not only can they call public safety, but they can also call 911 without fear of prosecution for possession of a controlled substance,” Gonzalez said.

Sabrina Koramblyum, former President of the SSDP chapter at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, said that their chapter is currently negotiating with administrators on the best approach to implementing a Good Samaritan Policy. On the heels of a unanimous vote in favor of the policy in the student senate, Koramblyum said that the administration is “very excited” about the upcoming policy change.

Members of the University of Miami’s SSDP chapter recently met with representatives from the Dean of Students office, where they were asked to produce more evidence that Good Samaritan policy was necessary. Since then, they have been reaching out to other student organizations for official support and to assist in an effort to collect petition signatures and student survey responses to help establish the need for the policy. A bill to support their proposed Good Samaritan policy is currently being drafted by the President of the Senate of the Student Government, and they have already secured the Panhellenic Councils support.  According to UM chapter President Alfred Kilzi, “We hope to see a promise by the administration that the policy will be written into the student code of conduct by the end of this spring semester, but at the very latest we anticipate that this policy will be in place by next fall.”