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Individuals who seek help during overdose could get immunity under bill

Special to the Legal News

Published: November 17, 2015

Interested parties offered a wave of support recently for a bill that would extend immunity from arrest and prosecution for a minor drug possession offense to an individual who seeks medical help during a drug overdose.

“I know in my heart if we were leaving cancer patients or any person with a disease in the streets to die, because someone was afraid to call for help, I know the people of Ohio would be outraged,” said Travis Bornstein, who testified in support of House Bill 249 in memory of his son, Tyler.

“Tyler was smart, athletic, a hard worker, he was gentile and had lots of friends. Of course, I get to say all these nice things about my boy because I’m his dad, but it’s also true. So, how does a kid like Tyler who comes from a middle class family with loving parents and tons of family and friends who loved him get addicted to heroin?”

Bornstein told members of the House Judiciary Committee that his son broke his right arm four times and had two surgeries on his right elbow at ages 11 and 18.

“In the process, he became addicted to the opiate pain medication which ultimately led him to heroin,” he said. “Tyler spent the next five years in and out of rehab facilities in Ohio and Michigan.”

On Sept. 28, 2014, the 23-year-old overdosed.

“Tyler met up with another heroin addict and was in the process of overdosing and instead of the other individual calling 911 for help, he took my son to a vacant lot on the corner of Arlington and Alfred in Akron and left him there to die,” Bornstein said.

In offering his thoughts on how to recover from such a tragedy, Bornstein said he first thinks of forgiveness.

“I’ve learned that I have to forgive a whole lot of people for me to recover and move forward. Guys like the drug dealer, the person who dumped my son’s body in a field like a piece of trash. The doctor who prescribed opiates to a kid,” he said.

“But most of all, myself. I was embarrassed and ashamed to talk to anyone about my son’s addiction because I thought I failed as a father and my son was a moral failure. I was embarrassed of my son.”

After forgiveness, Bornstein said he thinks of the importance of education.

He said his family has learned that the over prescribing of opiate pain medication has correlated with a sharp increase in addiction, heroin use and overdose deaths.

“I was stunned when I heard the top doctor of the United States, the U.S. surgeon general, say that ‘addiction is not moral failure.’ That it’s a disease just like cancer, heart disease and diabetes and should be treated like a disease,” he said.

“I am learning to forgive myself and I’m no longer embarrassed of my son. I’m only embarrassed that I was a fool.”

Bornstein said he believes enacting HB 249 could save lives.

The Mental Health and Addiction Advocacy Coalition agrees.

“This proposal would allow people to call 911 during a drug overdose without fear of being arrested,” said Kelly Smith, MHAC program and policy director.

“Last year in Ohio, there were 1,988 drug overdose deaths from opioids. Some of these may have been prevented with a 911 call.”

More than 30 states have signed similar measures in law.

The bill, jointly sponsored by Reps. Denise Driehaus, D-Cincinnati, and Robert Sprague, R-Findlay, would not provide immunity for serious offenses like manufacturing, trafficking or distribution of controlled substances.

Sandra Kuehn, president and CEO of the Center for Addiction Treatment in Cincinnati, said there are those who will oppose the bill because they do not view addiction as a medical condition.

“We still hear the opinion (of) ‘why go to this expense when they will just go out and do it again.’ Unfortunately, that may be true in some cases. But, more likely that saved life will be more like the patients we see at CAT,” she said.

“The 20-something daughter from a loving family who overdosed three times before getting into and completing treatment. Today, three years later, she is a wife, mother and taxpayer who works in a treatment agency, giving help and hope to people just like her. There are many more stories just like hers, which is why it is vitally important that we create an environment that encourages saving lives.”

Hebron resident Carol Young also pushed for the bill’s passage.

“Around March of 2014 my son was at a local motel. He was, at that time, doing drugs and was staying there because he had no place to stay. There were others staying in another room who met my son and stole from him,” she said.

“My son went to their room to get back what they took and he found a man lying on the floor and who had overdosed. My son conducted CPR on him and actually was told he saved the man’s life until the ambulance got there.”

After calling 911 to help the man, Young said her son was arrested.

“Nothing was even mentioned that he saved the man’s life that day at court or anything. The man who overdosed got nothing out of it. My point is the man would have died if my son had just ran in fear of getting in trouble, but he chose to help him.”

Young said more lives would be saved if individuals weren’t so afraid of being locked up for calling 911.

“My son used to be a lifeguard and knows how to save lives. I’m proud he did the right thing that day,” she said.

HB 249 is co-sponsored by 11 House members.

The bill has not been scheduled for additional hearings.

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