New Jersey aims to reduce the number of drug overdoses -- which have killed more than 6,000 people in the last decade -- with a new law protecting people who call 911 to report drug overdoses from criminal charges.

 

Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood is one of the dozens of family members who lobbied for this legislation. Her son, Sal Marchese, died of a drug overdose in 2010 at the age of 26.

DiRenzo believes her son's death could have been prevented.

"Sal was not alone when he overdosed," explained DiRenzo. "But the person who was with him did not call 911, most likely for fear of arrest." Police officers told DiRenzo that evidence showed that another person was present, but she never found out who was with her son when he died.

"We know that most times that people are using drugs, they are using them in the presence of others," said Rosanne Scotti, state director for the advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance.

"When they overdose, there is often a few hours before they would pass away from the drug, so there is both time and opportunity for someone to call for help," she said Thursday. "And now we have removed the major barrier to people calling for help."

Under the new law, those seeking help in case of an overdose will not face drug possession charges, or be charged for violating parole.

The law also makes it easier for addicts and family members to get prescriptions for the drug naloxone, an easily administered antidote in opioid overdoses.

New Jersey is the 12th state to adopt this kind of law. While police don't typically don't press charges in overdose situations, research on the effects of such laws found that they have diminished fear of repercussions among addicts.

Now that the law is passed, Scotti and DiRenzo say the real work of getting the word out about the legislation will begin. They are already working on a campaign and will reach out to schools, public health clinics, rehab facilities and treatment providers.