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State bill aims to prevent drug overdose deaths by offering medical amnesty to 911 callers

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By Pam O’Dell
Capitol Reporter

    With only three legislative days left until ‘Crossover Day’ (the last day for a bill to pass either the state house or senate, or cease to be considered), Justin Leef, a recent UGA graduate and first year law student, just heard some good news: HB965 had passed the rules committee and would be heard on the House floor the following day.


    HB965 (commonly referred to as the ‘Medical Amnesty Bill’) appeared to be stuck and likely ‘dead’ last Friday afternoon. The bill, which gives criminal immunity to citizens calling 911 if they fear someone is going to die of a drug overdose, was quickly (and anonymously) pushed ahead by someone with considerable political power.
    Leef doesn’t know who to thank but he is grateful. He had been haunted by the possibility that he might have to tell “the mothers” (who had lost a child to drug overdose and agreed to testify on behalf of the bill) that they would have to return next year. “I just don’t want to ask them to testify again, it’s too painful,” he said.

‘The Mothers’

    Leef’s grief over the overdose death of his childhood best friend, Zack Elliott, compelled him to initiate the bill and band together a group of parents who had lost their children to hauntingly familiar death scenarios. Leef recalls that Zack was “brilliant” and that he could “could hear a song once and grab a guitar and play it.”
    His death could have been prevented if someone had called 911 when he stopped breathing after using heroin. He died amongst friends who were too scared to make that call.
    During the hearing, tales of the same scenario were repeated with excruciating predictability.  Standing before a stunned audience, many parents stood with a picture of their child, painfully telling of the fateful abandonment of peers fearing prosecution. One parent recalled finding a son dumped in their back yard the following morning.

“My daughter is in an urn on the fireplace.”

    Tonya Smith told the committee: My daughter is in an urn on the fireplace. Asked if she objected to her statement appearing in newsprint Smith said: “My daughter died a horrible needless death. I am not going to sugar coat it. Yes, she used drugs but she didn’t deserve a death sentence. If this bill had been law, it would have given Taylor another day to fight her addiction.”   
    Lt. Smith, with the administrative and criminal investigation divisions at Holly Springs Police Department, said, “I see them pull the body bags out [in the course of her work] and, now that Taylor is dead, I realize that it’s not if this is going to happen to you - it’s when. Drug abuse is all over. I don’t know anyone that this doesn’t touch.”     Taylor Smith’s body was found in Pickens County on August 23, 2013, following a party here the night before. Her friends dumped her body in the yard of a home because they feared prosecution if they took her to the hospital.
    Investigation reports at the time noted that Smith had died overnight, not on the way to the hospital.
    Leef and Smith are working in tandem to get the bill passed so that ‘the mothers’ can have peace in knowing the scenario has been prevented by law.
    The bill has been carefully crafted to gain the approval of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia. Charles Spahos, lobbyist for the organization said the bill, doesn’t ban investigations and is “not going to be exploited by drug dealers, traffickers and other bad people.”
    Leef, who has become the face of the bill, says he is often privately commended by lobbyists and law makers who have lost someone to addiction. Reticent to accept credit, he shrugs, I have six of my friends in the cemetery, of course I am going to do this.”

    O’Dell provides news on state government through The O’Dell Report in newspapers in North Georgia and her blog, odellreport.com. She can be contacted at pamodellreport@ gmail.com

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