Student force behind D.C. drug amnesty law

Near collapse. Stuck inside his run-down home in Washington state, Jason felt the walls closing in as his father’s heroin addiction threatened to ruin both of their lives.

As a senior in high school, he moved into his best friend’s spare room at college. Five years later, that friend, GW graduate student Kellen Russoniello, began drafting a progressive drug policy to reduce fatal overdoses in D.C. The legislation went into effect last week.

Russoniello said the time he spent at his childhood friend Jason’s home – watching his father laying on the couch in crippling withdrawal – shaped the policy. He remembered when the father, Francis, pawned Jason’s guitar and video games, chasing his next fix.

“I basically watched him destroy himself and almost take my best friend with him,” Russoniello, a law and public health student, said. “[Jason] needed to get out – he needed to have a different starting point.”

Under the new law, D.C. residents can dial 911 to prevent a potentially fatal overdose without the fear of prosecution for simple drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia or underage drinking. D.C. joins a list of 10 states with similar good samaritan laws.

Seventy-nine people died from accidental drug overdoses in 2010, accounting for 26 percent of all accidental deaths in the District, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. It is D.C.’s second-leading cause of accidental death.

Student drug users who dial 911 will also receive immunity from arrest by Metropolitan Police Department officers, but could still face disciplinary sanctions – including suspension or expulsion – at the University.

Disciplinary offices will take a student’s emergency call into account when deciding whether to pursue disciplinary action, University spokeswoman Jill Sankey said. GW will review the newly enacted D.C. legislation to determine if it will change University policies, Sankey said.

Russoniello, who serves on the Board of Directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said his team has only won half the battle by getting the law. They are gearing up, alongside a coalition of national and local groups, for a massive campaign to promote the law.

“It’s great that the legislation passed, but it’s not going to do much unless people know about it,” Russoniello said.

Russoniello, who hopes to partner with city organizations, clinics and the D.C. Department of Health, plans to organize informational sessions and distribute wallet cards laying out residents’ rights under the law.

He said he has earned $4,500 in grants from the GW Public Service Grant Commission, a student-run fund that supports service projects. More than $2,000 went toward advertising, and Monday, the commission awarded him another $2,400 for the education campaign.

Breana Uhrig, a recent public health graduate, teamed up with Russoniello in 2011, after they met at a rally marking the 40th anniversary of the “War on Drugs.” Uhrig, now a research associate in the School of Public Health and Health Services, discovered that she and Russoniello shared a passion for drug policy reform while they were collaborating on crack cocaine sentencing reform.

“I see drug use as an addiction – as a medical issue,” she said. “I don’t think we should send folks to jail for this issue, and if folks are fearing arrest in calling – I wanted to erase that.”

The pair met with D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who quickly threw his support behind them, in 2012.

The D.C. Council ultimately struck many provisions from Russoniello’s draft – including protection from arrest for outstanding warrants and eviction from public housing – but he and his coalition fought to create the nation’s first drug policy to require an educational public awareness component.

It also protects individuals under 25 years old who seek medical attention for young people older than 16 who could be overly intoxicated. The age limit was created to ensure parents are vigilant in preventing parties involving alcohol.

Uhrig and six students in associate professor Caroline Sparks’ health advocacy class researched substance abuse and drug overdose statistics for a policy brief that introduced the bill to the council.

Now graduates, the former classmates have maintained ties with groups that helped lobby for the legislation, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive and Bread for the City, and have secured their support for the educational campaign.

GW students also tapped Grant Smith, a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, in August 2011 to support their efforts. Smith testified in favor of the bill before the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee less than a year later alongside Russoniello, Uhrig and another public health student Sheila Moen.

“It means that residents of the District of Columbia will – once they are notified that the law has protections – they will know their own lives and the lives of their families and friends mean more than the desire to arrest people for drug use,” Smith said.

The law also requires the D.C. mayor’s office to compile and analyze data on drug overdoses, emergency calls and police arrests at the scene of overdoses. Uhrig said the provision will help measure the law’s impact and boost outreach.

A 2011 University of Washington study reported that 88 percent of opiate users aware of the good samaritan law in that state were likely to call for help.

More students have called the University Police Department or EMeRG since GW became one of more than 90 universities nationwide to develop a good samaritan policy, offering disciplinary amnesty to students who seek help for over-intoxicated friends even if they are underage and have been drinking. Over the last three years, the number of student calls rose to 33 percent, from 22 percent, of EMeRG’s alcohol-related transports.

The University policy shift away from sanctions and toward education came after sophomore Laura Treanor died from alcohol poisoning in 2009.

The education coalition will target universities in the District, but Russoniello said the group’s primary focus is on city wards that report disproportionately more overdoses.

“I can give someone a copy of this and say, ‘This law has passed, these are your rights and don’t fear calling – you can save a life,’ ” Uhrig said.

Brianna Gurciullo contributed to this report.

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