Amnesty policy for saving lives

Here's hoping at least as many people read the story last month about Stephanie Rose Bongiovi as the news item the day before about the 19-year-old daughter of rocker Jon Bon Jovi.

The first report told how Bongiovi, 19, a student at Hamilton College in Clinton, first was treated for a drug overdose in her dorm room, then later charged with drug possession and related misdemeanor offenses. Ian S. Grant, 21, like Bongiovi from Red Bank, N.J., also was arrested at the scene and charged with a drug possession misdemeanor after he called for help.

The second story, published a day later, said the charges against both Bongiovi and Grant were dropped. Why? Because a state law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year specifically exempts from criminal drug charges anyone who seeks help for a person experiencing an overdose. It also exempts the victim of the overdose. The law was sponsored by Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan.

"Such measures are desperately needed," noted Gabriel Sayegh, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, at the time of the new law's enactment. He said last year accidental drug overdose was the third leading cause of death among 25- to 34-year-olds in New York City, with one overdose death nearly every day on Long Island.

While some might raise their eyebrows at a measure that seems to condone drug abuse, there clearly is an overriding public interest in this "Good Samaritan" law. Sayegh explained that while most overdose deaths are preventable if emergency services are called right away, in too many situations that call was not made out of fear of prosecution. The result: thousands of needless deaths each year.

In signing the law, Cuomo observed that "the benefit to be gained by the bill -- saving lives -- must be paramount."

A dozen colleges and universities in New York state and as many as 100 nationwide now have in place some form of Good Samaritan policy that exempts students from judicial action if they seek timely medical assistance for drug and alcohol problems. Those policies usually require that students go on to complete substance abuse education programs or treatment.

But the word still seems slow getting out. Kirkland police officers went ahead with the arrests, and Hamilton College officials seemed to back the police at first. The Hamilton student handbook notes "the college will offer no protection or immunity from prosecution by police agencies."

The law makes clear that if incidents involve large amounts of drugs or drug sales, amnesty is not an option. After the charges were dropped, a Hamilton College representative affirmed that there is an amnesty policy on campus for cases like this one.

The state Department of Criminal Justice Service reportedly is still working out guidelines for police agencies to use in enforcing the new state law. The sooner it completes that task and shares the guidelines with police authorities around the state, the sooner the new law can start achieving its full potential.

-- The Syracuse Post-Standard