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Assembly committee passes heroin prosecution bill (UPDATE)

Eau Claire, Wis. Fire Department EMT and Paramedic Matt Gunderson holds a dose of naloxone on Jan. 10, 2014. The emergency medical technicians of 47 agencies statewide will be allowed to administer the narcotic antidote naloxone, widely known by the brand name Narcan. Under current state policy, only advanced life support EMTs can administer naloxone with overdose patients. (AP Photo/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Dan Reiland).

Eau Claire Fire Department EMT and Paramedic Matt Gunderson holds a dose of naloxone Friday. (AP Photo/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Dan Reiland).

An Assembly bill that gives individuals who call 911 to report a heroin overdose immunity from prosecution for certain crimes unanimously passed out of committee Thursday.

The bill, which states that a person who calls 911 will not be prosecuted for possessing a small amount of heroin or drug paraphernalia, was put forth in October by state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. It is part of a larger package that seeks to help curb an increasing amount of heroin use in Wisconsin.

Nygren’s daughter is a recovering heroin addict. The bill was introduced at the same time as an initiative by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to educate the public about the dangers of the drug.

“Dialing 911 and getting the proper individuals there for the proper medications is very important in being able to save a life,” Nygren testified during the hearing.

The bill, which was passed by the Assembly’s criminal justice committee after a three-hour public hearing, has received support from Van Hollen, the State Public Defender’s Office and the Association of State Prosecutors.

It also gives immunity to a person who possesses and uses naloxone, which is more commonly known by the trademark Narcan. The drug is designed to counter the effects of an opiate. Doctors testified Thursday that the drug is proven to work with few side effects.

Two other bills in the package – which focus on expanding drug disposal programs and the availability of naloxone – also were unanimously passed by the committee. They are expected to be taken up by the full Assembly when it reconvenes on Tuesday.

Testimony during the public hearing was heavy on support for the bills. Several parents of heroin addicts pled with the committee to push the bill through. The more immunity given, they said, the more likely that others will call 911 and save more lives.

Karen Hale, a Hudson resident whose daughter, Alysa Ivy, died of a heroin overdose in May, told the committee that AB447 could have saved her daughter’s life.

When she died, Hale said, she was with a group of people. Those people, for fear of arrest, left her daughter at a motel without calling the authorities.

“We have a huge epidemic and something has to change,” Hale said. “When situations arise and [there is] an overdose, people hesitate to call 911 for fear of police involvement. One way to encourage this … is to exempt them from criminal prosecution.”

And while the bill passed unanimously, Assembly Democrats Fred Kessler and Evan Goyke expressed concern about the immunities put forth in the proposal.

Prior to the vote, Kessler, D-Milwaukee, said he was “really reluctant” to grant immunity to those that have committed a crime. Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said guaranteed immunity could mean police don’t go into a house and look for evidence for a possible crime. Officers “may miss the opportunity to investigate [what could be] a Len Bias homicide,” he added.

Several representatives pointed out that more serious crimes, however, such as distribution of drugs, are not covered by the bill.

The heroin package is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls.

Another bill in the package – which deals with monitoring prescription medication – was unanimously passed by the Assembly’s Committee on Health on Thursday. The full Assembly is expected to take the bill up Tuesday.


About Eric Heisig

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