BY LIBBY ASHTON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 28, 2009
The Michigan House of Representatives unanimously voted last week to pass the “Medical Amnesty” — or “Good Samaritan” — bill, which would grant exemption to underage drinkers who seek medical attention for alcohol-related health issues.
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Now on its way to the state Senate, the bill seeks to amend the Michigan Liquor Control Code, which currently states that underage drinkers are guilty of a misdemeanor, a crime punishable by law. The bill aims to eliminate the hesitation that might occur when underage drinkers are deciding whether or not to get help for a friend for fear of receiving a “minor in possession” citation.
Sen. Liz Brater (D–Ann Arbor) first introduced the bill in March. According to a press release issued by her office, the goal of the bill is to “prevent loss of life and make health and safety a higher priority than punishment.”
Brater said in an interview this week that she was motivated to introduce the bill after hearing about a series of incidents on college campuses in which seriously intoxicated students went without medical assistance because they or their friends were too afraid of receiving an MIP to call for help.
“We’re trying to prevent a tragedy by allowing someone to receive medical assistance for someone who is dangerously intoxicated,” Brater said. “(The bill) is in no way meant to condone minors consuming alcohol but to prevent a very narrow exception for this particular situation.”
Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Diane Brown said the motivation for this bill might be based on misconceptions.
“I’ve heard for years the perception that if you go to the E.R. and you’ve been drinking, they will call the police,” Brown said. “If that’s the totality of the situation, they will not.”
Brown explained that medical personnel are only expected to report their observations of other legal matters, like domestic or child abuse, not of underage drinking.
Secondly, Brown said she believes students have a misconception that if they receive an MIP, their records will be permanently marked with the offense. In reality, first-time offenders have the option to participate in alternative programs that will expunge their records.
Still, Brown doesn’t empathize with the choice to protect oneself from perceived legal repercussions rather than to prioritize safety.
“How can it be more important what kind of a fine you have to pay if you truly believe someone’s going to die?” Brown said. “I don’t get it.”
Michigan Student Assembly Business Rep. Alex Serwer said he thinks the bill will be effective in encouraging students to receive medical attention when necessary.
“(The bill) will provide students with a safety net should they be at risk late on a Saturday night,” Serwer wrote in an e-mail interview. “It will make students more proactive when considering what to do in response to excessive drinking behaviors.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (D–East Lansing), one of the bill’s primary supporters, along with members of the Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU), contacted Serwer earlier this month, asking him to have MSA write a letter of support to the state Senate on behalf of the bill.
“As students from various classes, grades and circles of friends, we have found that we can all relate to having heard stories of fellow classmates who have found themselves in the scary situation of either being too intoxicated or having to deal with another student who is too intoxicated,” MSA’s letter read. “In both situations, students are scared to call the police for fear of damage to their records or being punished by alcohol policies.”
The letter goes on to explain situations in which intoxicated students may choose to drive their friends to the hospital over calling for help. This scenario, it reads, puts the students involved, along with everyone else on the road, at risk.
Serwer said he learned from various House administrators and the University’s Vice President for Government Relations Cynthia Wilbanks that the letter articulating MSA’s perspective of the bill held great significance in the House Judiciary Committee’s proceedings as a representation of the student opinion.
“Now that the bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, we will certainly strengthen our efforts,” Serwer said. “We have reached out to (the Ann Arbor Police Department) as well as DPS so that we can create a coalition of law enforcement officials. Their voices at the state level would be very powerful.”