A growing number of New Jersey towns are urging state lawmakers to override Governor Chris Christie's veto of the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act bill. 

The bill, which would have offered limited immunity to those who call 911 in the event of a drug overdose, passed through the both chambers with wide bipartisan support, so Christie's conditional veto in October came as a surprise to the bill's many supporters.

"It felt like someone punched me in the stomach," said Patty DiRenzo, whose son Sal Marchese died of a drug overdose in September 2010. Police said Marchese was not alone at the time of his overdose, but no one ever called for help. His family believes whoever was with him was afraid of the legal consequences and did not call 911 to report that Marchese was in distress.

Overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey but it is preventable if quick action is taken by witnesses to summon medical assistance. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, fear of arrest and prosecution often prevents people from calling 911 and studies show that as a result, help is called for in only half of all overdoses.

Christie's conditional veto calls for an 18-month study to look at a variety of approaches in reducing the number of drug overdoses in New Jersey.  

DiRenzo said she and others from the Drug Policy Alliance who worked to get the bill passed met with aides from Christie's office prior to the veto to answer questions about the bill. They provided the governor's office with a myriad of documentation and DiRenzo said no one ever expressed any questions or concern over any part of the bill, so the conditional veto in favor of a study is baffling.

"The bottom line is that 12 kids have died from overdoses since the veto, and statistics show that half were with someone," said DiRenzo. "We need [this bill]. We're not going to stop fighting."

Luckily for DiRenzo, the push for an override is gaining momentum as New Jersey municipalities are coming out in support.

So far, Audubon, Red Bank, National Park, Gloucester Township, Magnolia, Raritan and Flemington have approved resolutions in support of the bill. Haddon Heights and Maple Shade have the measure on the agendas for their next meetings and Pennsauken is also considering the resolution. The office of Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden) said he is a strong supporter of the bill and he is excited to see towns coming out in support of the bill. Fuentes asked the Camden City Council to approve a similar resolution and though it has not been confirmed, a source tells his office that it was approved on November 13.

At Audubon's November 6 meeting, Mayor John Ward explained, "We believe it is good legislation to encourage people to call 911 and save someone's life." By showing support for an override, the borough hopes to "send a message" to the governor and the state legislature that they want the legislation passed to "make people make that phone call."

Governor seeks broader solution

The reasoning behind Christie's conditional veto was that the current language of the bill "fails to consider the existing approaches to deterrence, public safety, prevention of violence, and the many social problems that accompany the rampant proliferation of drug distribution and use...Accordingly, the more reasoned and practical approach is to address these issues comprehensively and holistically, rather than by simply removing criminal liability and exposure to punitive measures."

But National Park Mayor Mark Cooper thinks Christie's veto is arbitrary. "The way I look at it is, the way it is now, the person who is with the overdosed person will take off anyway, and not be charged. So what's the point? Let's pass this bill and maybe save a life."

Cooper said part of Christie's hesitation is due to his background as a prosecutor, but "I feel that while this bill is held up by the Governor, it may only cause more overdose-related deaths."

Though the bill would provide immunity for those reporting an overdose, the person calling 911 would rarely be a drug dealer as Christie's veto seems to suggest, said Red Bank Councilman Edward Zipprich. Drug dealers do not wait and watch drug users take the pills and see how they react. They sell and move on.

 

Though DiRenzo is grateful to all the municipalities supporting an override, she especially appreciates Audubon's support.

"Sal grew up in Audubon and went to school there," said DiRenzo. But he also had run-ins with Audubon's police. "For the town that he struggled in to show 110% support means a lot."

The bill's supporters may have gained an unexpected advantage this week as the life of high profile celebrity and New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi's daughter was saved in New York thanks to a friend who called 911 when she overdosed on heroin. New York is one of ten states that offer legal protection to witnesses calling 911 for overdoses.

In conjunction with the Drug Policy Alliance, DiRenzo and other supporters of the bill will attend a conference in Trenton on December 3 to urge lawmakers to override Christie's veto.