WASHINGTON (AP) — The morning after Salvatore Marchese left his mother's house for a session of outpatient treatment for his heroin addiction, he was found slumped behind the wheel of her car, dead of an overdose. He apparently hadn't been alone: His wallet was missing and the car's passenger seat left in a reclined position. But whoever was with him when he was using drugs was long gone by the time the police arrived.
When Patty DiRenzo learned what happened to her son, she wondered: "How could somebody leave somebody to die?"
Now, DiRenzo, of Blackwood, New Jersey, is part of a U.S.-wide push to make sure people won't be too afraid of being arrested to call authorities when they or someone they're with has overdosed. Eight states have passed laws in the past five years that give people limited immunity on drug possession charges if they seek medical help for an overdose. A similar proposal is being considered in Washington, D.C., but faces uncertain prospects because of opposition from police and prosecutors.
"It's really common sense," said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction coordinator of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that works to change current drug policies.
The measures have encountered resistance from some police officials and law-and-order legislators, who say they are tantamount to get-out-of-jail-free cards, condone drug use, and could prevent police from investigating illicit drug dealing or juvenile drug use.
"It's like free needle exchange programs where we tell law enforcement to turn a blind eye," said Kevin Lundberg, a Republican state senator in Colorado who voted against a law passed by his state this year. "If it's illegal, it should be illegal. If it's not illegal, then that's another thing."
There's little hard data to measure the success of the laws in the states where they've passed. Advocates acknowledge there's work to be done to make the public aware of the law changes. Initial findings from University of Washington researchers found that 88 percent of opiate users surveyed in the state, which passed an immunity law in 2010, would now be more likely to call authorities in case of an overdose. The study also found that 62 percent of police surveyed said they wouldn't make an arrest for possession anyway, so the law wouldn't change their behavior.
The push comes amid a U.S. spike in drug deaths, which advocates say could be reduced if more people felt comfortable seeking help in the immediate aftermath of an overdose. Overdose deaths by powerful prescription painkillers more than tripled over a decade, according to a November report issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The trend seems to be gaining some momentum.
Rhode Island, Illinois, Florida, Colorado and New York have passed laws in the past two years, joining Connecticut, Washington and New Mexico. The bills differ in some respects, but generally shield from prosecution a person who is in possession of a small quantity of drugs and who seeks medical aid after an overdose.
DiRenzo said her son had struggled with addiction since his was a teenager but had been clean for about three months at the time of his death at age 26. Although she can't be sure how he spent his final hours, she's confident he could have been saved had someone in Camden, where he died, called the police. She became an advocate for the law change after Salvatore's death and cried all day after being told the New Jersey bill was being shelved until next year.
A sponsor, Joseph Vitale, said he plans to try again to pass it. DiRenzo said she hopes to make a new law part of her son's legacy.
"I couldn't justify him just dying and walking away," she said. "I just had to do something for him."
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