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June 4, 2013

Overdoses draw attention to new Samaritan law

By Claudia Vargas

CAMDEN, N.J. — When Patty DiRenzo read about the heroin overdose cases in Camden that made headlines over the weekend, she thought, "Oh, no."

Summer is here, and overdose cases in hospital emergency rooms tend to increase, according to statistics kept by the state Department of Health.

DiRenzo, whose son, Sal Marchese, died of a heroin overdose in a parked car in North Camden in 2010, has since been on a quest to save those in similar situations.

DiRenzo, of Blackwood, was a big advocate of the Good Samaritan Emergency Response legislation, which Gov. Christie signed into law on May 2. The law, which went into effect immediately, gives immunity to drug users who call 911 for help when someone has overdosed or needs immediate medical attention.

She worries that given the reported overdoses Friday, people are not aware that they do not risk arrest for drug-related charges when they call for help for themselves or someone else who is overdosing.

"Their fear is they are going to be arrested . . . a summons goes to their home," which results in the families finding out about the person's drug habits, DiRenzo said.

She believes her son could have been saved if a witness to his overdose had called for help.

New Jersey became the 12th state to offer limited immunity to those who report an overdose. Pennsylvania does not have a similar law.

The law aims to combat overdoses by encouraging witnesses to call for help and expanding access to naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose on opiates such as heroin.

Early Friday morning, police responded to three heroin overdoses. All three individuals survived. One man showed up at Cooper University Hospital and was not charged. A woman was reported to be overdosing, but had left the scene by the time emergency medical personnel showed up.

An officer with the new Camden County Police Department's Metro Division might have saved the life of one of the victims when the officer found the man passed out inside a vehicle.

Believing the man was overdosing and his life was in danger, Officer Benjamin Patti used his baton to break one of the car's windows to get to the driver.

Ryan Fithian, 24, of Barrington, was taken to Cooper University Hospital by ambulance, where he was treated. Fithian was charged with driving while under the influence of an illegal substance.

Had he or a victim called for help, he might have avoided arrest or at least have a better defense in court.

Law enforcement officials were investigating whether the three overdoses were related to the six nonfatal heroin overdoses a few weeks earlier.

According to Department of Health data for 2011 - the most recent available - 626 people were treated in Camden County hospitals for, and 157 died from, drug overdoses.

Emergency Department visits involving drug overdoses tend to rise in the warmer months, May to September, Department of Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner said.

State officials recently formed a committee to examine, among other things, why overdoses spike in the summer, said Ellen Lovejoy, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, which oversees the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

The Good Samaritan law states: "The act of seeking medical assistance for someone experiencing a drug overdose is to be considered by the court as a mitigating factor in a prosecution for other drug offenses."

The police officers with the Camden County Police Department are being trained to not arrest those who call for help for an overdose, spokesman Michael Daniels said.

"Typically we don't make arrests like that," Daniels said about overdose situations.

Metro police officers with the county force conducted a large drug sweep last week that targeted drug dealers and buyers primarily in North Camden and Whitman Park. Of the 45 buyers of heroin, cocaine, or crack arrested Wednesday and Friday, 36 were residents of suburban communities or Philadelphia.

Many suburban drug buyers will drive in, "buy the drugs, and do drugs pretty quickly after they buy them," Daniels said.

Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the state, according to the Good Samaritan law.

"We are hoping this will help," Daniels said about the law.

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