A Senate panel on Tuesday advanced a bill that would grant people immunity for carrying small amounts of drugs if they seek medical help for an overdose.
The proposal applies to individuals who are found in possession of any drug, including fentanyl and illicit opioids, if they ask for medical assistance in “good faith” when they believe a user is experiencing an overdose.
“It’s really trying to make sure that if somebody is in the midst of seeing somebody struggling of an overdose they shouldn’t have to be worried about the state charging them,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican sponsoring the measure.
“They should immediately do the right thing — the focus here is to save lives.”
Under a law signed last year that created tougher drug trafficking statutes, fentanyl traffickers can face first-degree murder charges if users die from an overdose.
The law was in response to the growing opioid epidemic gripping the state and upon passage was praised by Attorney Pam Bondi as life-saving legislation that “gives law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need to combat the trafficking of fentanyl.”
The proposed measure (SB 970) would not toss or change that law. However, it would give arrest and prosecution immunity to people who seek medical assistance in “good faith” if they believe an individual is experiencing an alcohol or drug-related overdose even if they are found in possession of fentanyl and helped distribute the drug to the user.
Over 40 states have passed similar laws over the years. Brandes believes it can help lower the number of “preventable” alcohol- and drug-related overdose deaths in Florida, which amounted to 5,392 in the first six months of 2016, according to Florida Bureau of Vital Statistics.
The vote to move the bill ahead was unanimous. The measure now has two more committee stops before it can head to the full floor for consideration.
Hours before the vote Senate President Joe Negron kicked off the 2018 legislative session by urging lawmakers to address the opioid crisis and to make sure addicts have access to the resources they need to beat their drug habits.
Brandes, who has long championed criminal justice reform bills and is now the chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, said he is “excited” to see a shift in policy this year in the criminal justice arena.