When I was enrolled at the University of Florida, there was a tragedy that involved a student who died from alcohol poisoning. As more information began to trickle out from the investigation, it became apparent that if someone had just called 911 for help, the scenario might have played out differently.
But since at least some of the students were under 21, they were afraid of being arrested, and did not make what could have been a life-saving phone call.
This situation, along with too many others, is why the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s 12 public universities, made House Bill 595 a priority during the 2019 legislative session: to grant amnesty to people who call the police and save a life — even if they’re consuming alcohol underage.
It was my great honor to sponsor this bill and to push through legislation — now awaiting the governor’s signature — that has the potential to save lives. That’s particularly true on college campuses, where 96% of students report using alcohol and 20% report having at least five alcoholic drinks in one sitting within the past two weeks, according to the National College Health Assessment. Further, alcohol-related deaths among 18- to 24-year-olds are growing nationally — increasing from 207 in 1998 to 891 in 2014, according to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. These deaths are preventable.
This is not the first time the Florida Legislature has examined this issue, known as medical amnesty. A similar law, which passed in 2012, ensures that people who call 911 to help someone experiencing a drug-related overdose do not face a penalty.
HB 595 extends medical amnesty to protect people under 21 from being arrested for possession of alcohol if they call the police to save a life. If HB 595 had been in place when I was at UF, I truly believe the young man who died might still be alive today.
Any type of criminal justice reform can be difficult to get across the finish line in the Florida Legislature. As a Democrat — a minority in both the House and Senate — I had to work especially hard at getting the legislation on medical amnesty heard and passed.
That said, I am thankful for the committee staff who were so supportive, particularly when they learned about the data that led me to file the bill. The Florida Board of Governors and State University System of Florida also played a big role helping the bill gain momentum.
If Gov. DeSantis signs the bill, our next challenge will be making sure we get the word out to students so they will feel comfortable calling in an emergency.
Yes, we should encourage our young people to behave responsibly. The BOG and SUS are working hard to foster a culture that encourages safe choices. But we should also make sure our students are aware that — if the situation arises — it’s better to be safe and call 911 than to wait and hope everything will be OK.
Please let the young people in your life know: There’s absolutely no reason to take that chance.
David Silvers is a member of the Florida House of Representatives from District 87, which is in central Palm Beach County.