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USF launches student amnesty policy for overdose situations

As official policies go, Evan Eisenberg thought this one would make a lot of sense: If it looks like someone might overdose on drugs or alcohol, get help. Don't worry about getting in trouble.

So, around the time a state law designed to save lives went on the books, Eisenberg was working on a draft of his own. As president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at the University of South Florida, his goal was to get a version of Florida's 911 Good Samaritan Act going at school.

"Drug use shouldn't be a death sentence," said Eisenberg, 24. "It's largely a policy that's just based on psychology."

The proposal made its way through the school's approval process, and in September, USF officials enacted a Medical Amnesty Policy similar to Florida's 911 Good Samaritan Act. Both offer some protections from punishments. For example, if a partygoer stops breathing or passes out and someone calls 911, both the caller and the victim might be exempt from sanctions.

USF's dean for students, Michael Freeman, sent an email around the university in November explaining the new policy.

"We really want students to know about this policy," Freeman said. "That's why we're doing more of a push to say, 'Hey, pay attention to this now.' "

The university has a range of sanctions for drug and alcohol offenses. Students can get a letter of warning. They can have their housing canceled. They can be sent to educational programs. They can be suspended or expelled. An administrator might call their parents.

When sanctions go on permanent records, they can interfere with job hunts, especially when it comes to government jobs. Students hoping to avoid trouble might take the more dangerous route of not telling anyone at all.

"We live in pretty much a bystander reality now," Freeman said. "There are lots of people in the community that don't want to get involved. One of the things we're trying to do is increase the notion of community on campus. Increase the notion that we take care of each other."

Freeman emphasized that the policy at USF is not a free pass. Each case will be considered individually.

"This is not encouragement to do whatever you want, and you're safe," he said. "We may want you to go to talk to someone, reflect on what happened."

Drug overdoses have risen dramatically in the past two decades, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, becoming the leading cause of injury death in the United States. In 2011, drugs caused about 2.5 million emergency room visits.

In the 2011-12 academic year, 141 USF students received alcohol education as a sanction, according to university records. This semester, three students were reported to have been taken to the hospital for alcohol or drug use.

The amnesty policy at USF has nothing to do with choices law enforcement officers make at a scene. But the 911 Good Samaritan Act passed in 2012 does allow people to call for help without danger of being arrested for simple drug possession. One study from the New York Academy of Medicine found that fear of police was the most common reason people gave for not seeking medical help.

The law is designed to prevent deaths like that of Joey Boylan, an 18-year-old Tarpon Springs High football player who died of a drug overdose in 2011 when friends did not call for help.

"The concern is truly to save lives rather than to have people worry about being persecuted in that situation," said Cassandra Akanu, a 19-year-old USF junior and co-president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "You should be able to put the value of that life above worrying about the negative consequences."

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have good Samaritan laws. Hundreds of colleges have some kind of amnesty policy in place, including the University of Florida, Florida State, Florida Atlantic, Eckerd College, New College of Florida, the University of North Florida and the University of Tampa.

Eisenberg has never been in a situation where he would have needed medical amnesty, he said. It was a USF class on social activism that got him interested in drug policies.

He started a formal chapter of SSDP to support issues like legalizing medical marijuana and getting clean syringes to intravenous drug users to ward off disease.

He graduated in August, and is working to get chapters of SSDP started at other schools across the country, hoping they'll enact medical amnesty policies.

People already are using it at USF. In the quiet first two months of the policy, Freeman said, two students called for help and received amnesty.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394.

USF launches student amnesty policy for overdose situations 11/26/13 [Last modified: Sunday, December 1, 2013 11:15pm]
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