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WI underage drinkers might get immunity for reporting alcohol OD

Last month, we wrote that Wisconsin legislators have been working to pass bills that could significantly reduce the number of overdose deaths from street drugs such as heroin. The rate of fatal heroin overdoses has risen sharply nationwide in recent years.

Last weekend, the problem gained even more national attention when famed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent heroin overdose at the age of 46. Before relapsing within the last year, Hoffman had reportedly achieved over two decades of abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

One of the drug-related bills considered by state lawmakers was a proposal to offer limited criminal immunity to individuals who try to save a life by calling 911 or by bringing an overdose victim to the emergency room. These individuals are often hesitant to take such actions due to fear of being prosecuted for drug crimes.

A similar bill currently being considered by Wisconsin legislators would remove barriers to reporting alcohol-related medical emergencies. If the bill were to pass, college students and others under age 21 would be immune from underage drinking citations in cases where they came forward to report medical emergencies such as alcohol poisoning.

The bill, as proposed by state Senator Fred Risser, would prohibit law enforcement from issuing underage drinking citations both to those who call for help and those for whom help was called. These same individuals would also be protected from certain disciplinary measures imposed by University of Wisconsin schools. Immunity from citations would only apply to citations for underage possession of alcohol.

According to news reports, the provision of the bill granting immunity to the person needing medical assistance is an important one. A student survey conducted in 2012 revealed that 89 percent of students would not hesitate to call 911 in an alcohol-related emergency if they knew that both they and the victim would be protected from citation. Only 40 percent of students said they would call if they alone were offered protection.

In the past, such proposals have been dismissed as “soft on crime” or as an endorsement of drug/alcohol use. But these substances have never needed endorsement. They have been widely used and abused despite strict legal consequences. Hopefully, these bills will at least make the abuse of drugs and alcohol less likely to be fatal.

Source: LaCrosse Tribune, "Bill would protect underage drinkers who call 911," Nico Savidge, Feb. 4, 2014

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