JEFFERSON CITY • Longtime advocates for measures that address an opioid crisis plaguing both the nation and the Show-Me state are cautiously optimistic that they’ll become law this year.
A fervent opponent to a prescription drug-monitoring database, Sen. Rob Schaaf announced last week that he would no longer resist a proposal that would establish one in Missouri. Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, has stifled similar bills for the past five years, citing privacy concerns.
And the Missouri House gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill that would grant immunity from minor drug possession charges to those who call 911 on behalf of someone suffering an overdose.
It’s a plan that was first offered in 2013, with backers arguing that the abuse of heroin and other opiates posed a particularly deadly and growing threat in Missouri, especially in the St. Louis area.
Opioids include both heroin and prescription drugs, and their abuse has been classified as an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay signed a similar immunity bill in July. The bill moving through the Legislature would make it a state standard.
Supporters say the proposal acts hand-in-hand with a prescription database, insisting both are necessary to combat an addiction with a death rate that has more than doubled since 2000.
A recent Post-Dispatch report documented just how dangerous — and accessible — the drugs are becoming. Heroin prices have plummeted to $5 to $10 a dose, and a new, synthetic opioid has flooded the market. Fentanyl may be cheap, but it’s also 50 times stronger than the real thing.
“This addiction doesn’t know race. It doesn’t know class. It doesn’t care,” said Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester, speaking in support of the immunity bill, which is often known colloquially as a “good Samaritan” law.
Sponsoring Rep. Steve Lynch, R-Waynesville, became emotional on the House floor when talking about recovering addicts.
“They deserve to be saved,” Lynch said. “This bill will save lives.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states and the District of Columbia have some form of a “good Samaritan” law on the books, though the scope of what violations fall under immunity can vary.
Some legislators with backgrounds in law enforcement raised concerns that the bill would allow criminals to walk away without consequences, with no requirement for them to get treatment for their addictions.
Lynch said his proposal was merely meant to address the fear of criminal repercussion for those who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or who might have a small amount of drugs in their possession. Being forced into treatment could make them more reluctant to call for help, he said.
His “good Samaritan” proposal is now one vote away from heading to the Senate. Last week, he also stressed the importance of the drug-monitoring database.
“People always talk about these two bills. [They] work together in tandem,” Lynch said.
Rep. Holly Rehder’s prescription drug-monitoring proposal received unanimous support in a Senate committee Thursday and now moves to the floor.
While Rehder, R-Sikeston, said she was hopeful that the door had finally opened for her bill, Schaaf has set a condition for halting his opposition. He wants a provision known as a utilization mandate, which would require doctors to use the program or face liability.
“The program works best and more lives are saved in states where prescribers are expected to use it,” Schaaf said. “Missouri deserves no less, especially when they’re giving up some of their liberty.”
Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, who is sponsoring the Senate’s prescription drug-monitoring bill, said Thursday that he was still working on an amendment satisfying Schaaf’s request. He wants to exempt doctors prescribing for hospice care or post-surgery pain. He remains confident Missouri would get its database this year.
Brandon Costerison, a spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse’s St. Louis County chapter, said finally passing the measures would help Missouri solve the mental crisis and would give Missouri an enormous opportunity to help those suffering from addiction.
“This would reroute us from looking at addiction from a criminal justice perspective to looking at it from a mental health perspective,” he said. “We’ll be able to do some things that will really help people and catch up with the rest of the country.”
Rehder’s bill is HB 90. Lynch’s bill is HB 294. Schatz’s bill is SB 314.