Can Grassroots Activism Lead To Heroin Reform in St. Louis?

By Zachary Siegel 12/10/15

Activists are pushing for public health legislation to curb heroin mortality.

Chad Sobora.JPG
Via Facebook (with permission)

Taylor Mabery, 19, of De Soto, Mo., has witnessed tremendous, yet preventable tragedies in her short life. By the time she was 16, her mother and adoptive father both died from opiate overdoses. 

“I see it in my dreams, my nightmares,” Mabery said in an interview with The Fix. She described the scene of her walking into a Subway bathroom to find her adoptive father face down on the floor, comatose from a hot shot.

Mabery transformed her grief into public health activism and now works alongside other grassroots activists at the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery. She speaks to young people in high schools about her losses, hoping to educate and inform.

The activist group, along with state representatives, pre-filed three public health reform bills in the Missouri legislature, which reconvenes in January 2016.

One of the three bills, House Bill 1568, will allow for third-party access to naloxone, the opiate overdose reversal drug. “If I had access to [naloxone], it would be a whole different situation,” Mabery said. “We could’ve saved my mom’s life. With this bill, she could be alive today.” The same goes for her adoptive father, she said.

Currently, 44 states have passed bills expanding access to naloxone.

The second of the three is House Bill 1569, which, if passed, will grant certain immunities to those who call for help in a drug overdose. The bill aims to address what has been described as a rash of “body dumps”—when people leave behind overdosed bodies to save their own skin from drug charges.

Kathi Arbini of Fenton, Mo., lost her 21-year-old son, who died of an overdose in his friend’s basement. “When we found out he had died, the coroner said he had been dead for over 17 hours,” Arbini told The Fix.

A known drug dealer and heroin user occupied the house where the overdose occurred. “I truly, truly believe they were afraid to call [the overdose] in,” Arbini said.

During an opiate overdose, time is of the essence. With a 911 Good Samaritan Law in place, they could have called in Arbini’s son’s death right away and he might have been rescued by naloxone. And nobody would have gone to jail.

So far, 32 states have passed 911 Good Samaritan Laws.

The third bill, House Bill 1570, is unique and there are very few like it. If passed, for every drug-related offense one incurs, a $5 surcharge will be added to the fine in order to fund drug rehabilitative programs.

“This is a public health crisis,” Robert Riley, co-founder of the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery, told The Fix. “407 people died of overdoses in the St. Louis area during 2014.”

He continued with strong words, “If this was an E. coli outbreak, we would have the CDC in town and media would be here—there would be outrage.” Given this, Riley cannot understand why the Missouri legislature haven't been able to pass a 911 Good Samaritan law or a bill to expand naloxone access, which would save lives and cost taxpayers virtually nothing.

Both the Good Samaritan and the third-party naloxone bills failed to pass in the last two consecutive years.

Chad Sabora, co-founder of the Missouri Network, told The Fix he is feeling confident about the bills and is ready to see what comes in January. Maybe the third time's a charm.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.