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What one near-fatal overdose can teach South Carolina about the need for new drug laws

Cleaning up


Earlier this week, Charleston police responded to a grocery store on Folly Road in reference to an unconscious man in a pick-up truck, his eyes rolled back, drool spilling from his mouth, and his head beaded with sweat. An empty bottle of Oxycodone sat at his side. The prescription for 75 pills had been filled just three days before, according to an incident report from the Charleston Police Department.

“I think he overdosed,” a man at the scene told officers.

Soon, EMS and the fire department responded, pulled the man from his truck, and placed him in the back of an ambulance. With the man falling in and out of consciousness, responders administered Narcan, a nasal spray used for the emergency treatment of suspected opioid overdoses. Looking into the ambulance, the officer reported that he could see fresh track marks on the man’s arms. One spot on the top of his wrist appeared to be a fresh injection point, the officer wrote in his report. The Narcan would be enough to save the man’s life on this occasion. From this single incident, it’s possible to see what progress has been made in combating fatal overdoses in South Carolina and what more can be done to curb the growing opioid epidemic.

According to the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS) and a report prepared by the state Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, there were 594 opioid-related deaths in South Carolina in 2015, 49 of which occurred in Charleston County.

Last year, the Charleston Police Department became the first law enforcement agency in the Lowcountry to begin training and providing officers with Narcan. Statewide, emergency medical service agencies used the life-saving drug more than 6,400 times in 2016. In Charleston County, uses of Narcan increased almost twofold over the previous year, surpassing 400 cases.

In 2014, former Gov. Nikki Haley established the state’s Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Council, tasked with developing a comprehensive state plan to tackle South Carolina’s growing problem of prescription drug abuse. One year later, the council released more than 50 recommendations that focused on the South Carolina Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, law enforcement, treatment, education, and data. According to the DAODAS, the number of prescribers and pharmacists registered and using the prescription drug-tracking program increased to 85 percent in 2016 — up from just 22 percent two years prior. The department also reports that more than 450 law enforcement officers are now trained to intervene with opioid overdoses. Now lawmakers are looking at what will be the next steps in managing opioid abuse — beginning with education.

Members of the state House of Representatives have introduced a slew of new bills in recent months related to opioid abuse. One bill aims to require instruction on prescription opioid abuse prevention as a part of high school health classes throughout the state. The mandatory 240 minutes of classes would emphasize “the prescription drug epidemic and the connection between opioid abuse and addiction to other drugs such as heroin.” The cost for school districts to enact the new lesson plan is estimated at $395,000 statewide for the first year.

Another bill focusing on adolescents would create stricter requirements for anyone prescribing painkillers to a minor. Doctors would need to determine whether their young patients have ever suffered or currently suffer from a mental-health or substance-abuse disorder and whether they are taking medication to treat it. Prescribers would also need to discuss the risk of addiction and overdoses associated with painkillers, as well as maintain detailed records on each prescription.

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, the number of opioid prescriptions in South Carolina exceeds 101 per every 100 residents — meaning that the number of prescriptions in the state is slightly greater than the population. For comparison, South Carolina ranked 11th in the nation for number of opioid prescriptions per person, while the national average sat at 82.5 prescriptions for every 100 Americans. This number now includes the bottle of Oxycodone found in the truck of the man who overdosed.

Returning the officer’s account of the near-fatal overdose out on Folly Road, police were first told by the witness they met on scene that he had merely happened upon a stranger slumped over in his truck. Leaving work, the witness said he was stopping to pick up some groceries on his way home when he found the man and called for help. But the witness’s story soon fell apart.

According to an incident report, the witness claimed that he was planning on meeting the man in the parking lot to take him in for drug treatment. When he arrived, he found a belt around the unconscious man’s arm and a used syringe in his lap. Worried that his friend would be arrested for drug charges, the witness said he removed the belt, placed it in the back of the truck, and tossed the syringe into the grass. As the officer was looking for the evidence, he states that he saw the witness walk to his truck and remove the used needle from the vehicle. A search of the witness’s truck uncovered marijuana and a pipe, according to an incident report. Officers also found an unidentified white powder in the bottom of a reusable shopping bag in the passenger seat of the man’s vehicle. The powder was sent to the lab for further testing, the officer noted.

Since South Carolina is one of a shrinking number of states without “Good Samaritan” laws, the witness’s concern over possible arrest for him and his friend was warranted. As of late January this year, the National Conference of State Legislatures found that 37 states had enacted some form of a “Good Samaritan” or 911 drug immunity law.

According to the NCSL, these laws “generally provide immunity from arrest, charge, or prosecution for certain controlled substance possession and paraphernalia offenses when a person who is either experiencing an opiate-related overdose or observing one calls 911 for assistance or seeks medical attention.” State legislators in both the House and Senate are now attempting to set up similar laws in South Carolina.

Under the proposed legislation, anyone seeking medical attention for themselves or someone else for a drug- or alcohol-related overdose would be provided limited immunity for certain drug offenses. Someone seeking help for another person could not be prosecuted for possession of a controlled substance if evidence for the prosecution was solely obtained as a result of the person seeking medical assistance for the apparent overdose. The House version of the bill continues to gain more sponsors, while the Senate’s “Good Samaritan” bill passed second reading in early March.

With this most recent case out on Folly Road, the “Good Samaritan” who led police to his dying friend was charged with simple possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. An incident report states that if the white powder found in his car tests positive as a controlled substance, warrants will be sought out at a later date. Meanwhile, the man whose life was saved from a near-fatal overdose called a cab to take him home.

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