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The negative consequences of Kristen’s Law were known and predicted; Our elected leaders passed it any way



“We know, based on decades of criminal justice based drug policy, that harsher penalties do not decrease drug using activity. So, this bill’s disturbing message will not decrease drug use, nor drug trafficking –the economics ensure this –but it will further marginalize people who use drugs and increase their fears.”

The Rhode Island ACLU and the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC (SUPER PAC) have joined forces to call upon South Kingstown Police Chief Joseph Geaber Jr and South Kingstown elected official to drop charges in violation of the “Duty to assist” law against Julia Martin.

Julia Martin was using fentanyl with a person who began to overdose. Instead of offering “reasonable assistance,” Martin fled the scene. The person overdosing reportedly suffered “grave physical harm” as a result.

“Decades of treating drug use as a criminal condition have pushed people with substance use disorder into the shadows,” writes the ACLU and SUPER PAC. “Stigma, shame and harsh criminal charges such as felony drug possession and drug-induced homicide (i.e. “Kristen’s Law“) reflect the chasm between our words (“addiction is a disease”) and our lack of appropriate action to address it as such. Instead of implementing evidence-based public health interventions, we continue to propagates “tough on crime” tactics that have failed for decades and don’t provide a safe place for people to get help.”

In the letter, it is explained that the 911 Good Samaritan law is limited in scope. “In 2018, according to data provided by the Attorney General’s office, there were seven occasions when someone was protected by the Good Samaritan law for calling 911 during an overdose in South Kingstown, but three times in which someone was still criminally charged after making the call. Providence was the only municipality in the state that charged more people with crimes after making calls for help.”

Here’s the full letter:

When Kristen’s Law was introduced in the House last year, experts in addiction were quick to condemn it as counter productive and dangerous. Scenarios where users would leave others to die rather than risk arrest for substance use were predicted.

“This legislation, although well-intentioned, will only lead to more of our family members, friends and loved ones being removed from our lives before they themselves could achieve recovery,” said Lisa Peterson, an expert in substance abuse.

“While we understand that the intentions behind the proposed legislation are to address the overdose epidemic that has killed too many people in Rhode Island, we feel that the bill as it currently stands will be counterproductive: It will hurt the same people it claims to help,” said Annajane Yolken, then executive director of Protect Families First.

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The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights released a letter in opposition signed by 15 organizations and 60 individuals who work in the recovery community. The letter said, in part, “We know, based on decades of criminal justice based drug policy, that harsher penalties do not decrease drug using activity. So, this bill’s disturbing message will not decrease drug use, nor drug trafficking –the economics ensure this –but it will further marginalize people who use drugs and increase their fears.”

Despite testimony like this, and the considered opinions of nearly every substance use expert in the state, including members of Governor Gina Raimondo’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force such as Dr Jody Rich, the House and Senate both passed the bill and Governor Raimondo signed it

Throughout this period, Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), was silent. When I fianally tracked her down for some sort of statement, Dr Alexander Scott told me that RIDOH had no public stance on Kristen’s Law, saying only, “We’re with the Governor.”

Earlier this year, while introducing Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, the hero of the Flint water crisis, to an audience in Providence, Dr Alexander-Scott had a very different stance on scientific evidence and best practices, saying, “This is the heart of public health in action. It’s about evidence; using science and data to drive our work. It’s about prevention; putting systems in place to catch children and families and communities before they fall. It’s about equity; removing obstacles to health for every child in every community regardless of their zip code. It’s about social justice; acknowledging and acting on forces like discrimination, that created the conditions that we live in today, where some people get to live in safe homes and neighborhoods, and others don’t…”

Raimondo’s attitude toward evidence based medical practice was a bit scary:

“I do plan to sign it,” said Raimondo when I asked her about the bill. “I will say it’s very difficult. After a great deal of thought I decided I am going to sign the bill. It’s not an easy call.”

I pointed out that the scientific consensus is against it.

“I don’t agree with that,” said Raimondo. “I have heard from many people who are begging me to sign it, mostly parents who have lost their children…”

“But not scientists or sociologists?” I asked.

“…and I’ve heard from many other people asking me not to. So my position is: The first thing is prevention, second thing is treatment, that’s what we’re doing here [at the Second Annual Community Overdose Engagement Summit] Under my leadership Rhode Island is a national leader in prevention and treatment. But there is a role for law enforcement, this is a crisis, I want to use all tools at our disposal. Like any legislation it can be revisited in a year or two if it has negative consequences.

“But in my judgement we have to do everything we can to save lives and I am going to sign the bill.”

Bad policy based on bad science destroys lives. This was known by Gina Raimondo, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio long before the bill became law, and before lives began to be ruined by it.

But it was an election year, so priorities…

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.