By Joseph Whitney Smith
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. -- Cullen Hazelwood died of an overdose last year 2 miles from the hospital because his friend was scared to call for help, according to his mother Christy Farmer.
Farmer wants to see legislation passed in the General Assembly that would extend immunity from prosecution to people reporting an overdose.
In 2019, the General Assembly passed a law that offered individuals an affirmative defense from prosecution for purchasing or possessing drugs, meaning the charges could be reduced or cleared. The bill also struck the requirement that the individual reporting an overdose participate in a criminal investigation. Senate Bill 667, patroned by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, proposes immunity for people who report overdoses, meaning no charges would be filed.
Fatal drug overdose has been the leading method of unnatural death in Virginia since 2013, driven by opioid use, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The other two in the category are motor vehicle related and gun deaths. Fentanyl accounts for a majority of fatal overdoses, followed by heroin and prescription opioids, respectively.
House Bill 532, introduced by Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, sought to achieve the same goal as SB 667. However, it was tabled last week in a 5-3 subcommittee vote. Carr said that fear of legal consequence is the most common reason for not contacting emergency services during an overdose. The legislation was intended to make reporting emergencies easier for all parties involved.
“The people most directly impacted by this legislation are those who experience an overdose as well as those friends or family members who are present when an overdose occurs,” Carr said.
Farmer said that her 18-year-old son died of an overdose on May 7, 2019. She said he had recently finished a recovery program and had been clean for several months before his relapse. She said when her son overdosed he was with a friend who took him to someone’s apartment but they were not home.
“A neighbor said he was yelling, ‘I can't get in trouble, I can't get in trouble, I can't get in trouble,’” Farmer said. “Where my son ended up dying was less than 2 miles from a hospital, less than 2 miles from my house, and less than 3 miles from his grandmother’s house.”
Marianne Burke had a family member that overdosed on heroin but didn’t die. That overdose wasn’t reported due to fear of prosecution, Burke said.
“It's obvious that the bill that we have called safe reporting has not done the trick in Virginia,” Burke said.
Westmoreland County Commonwealth’s Attorney Julia Sichol spoke last week in opposition to the House bill, on behalf of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. Sichol said she thinks Carr’s bill “can also cause harm to lives” because immunity would keep individuals who report an overdose from being charged with a crime and possibly prevent them from obtaining treatment.
“Drug treatment is extremely expensive and sometimes the only way to get the treatment for the individuals is through the court system,” Sichol said. “If you take away the ability for individuals to be charged who have overdosed they are not eligible to participate in drug treatment program, they are not eligible to go through the court system under mandated treatment.”
Drug courts are specialized courts where individuals plead guilty and agree to complete the drug court program, Sichol said. Patients in the program are on probation and can live at home, she explained. They are screened for drugs three times a week, attend drug treatment counseling, have a curfew and can receive visitors.
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, voted against tabling the House bill, saying she objected to “the contention that we can incarcerate ourselves out of addiction” and that treatment simply should be more accessible.
“It is the fact that we don’t allow them to get the treatment until we incarcerate them,” she said. “And that’s a failure of us and our system and the way that we think of substance abuse.”
SB 667 will be heard Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary committee.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.