A new Virginia law that took effect Monday allows someone who is using drugs and reports an overdose to avoid prosecution for the possession or consumption of an illegal drug or the possession of paraphernalia.
The aim is to save lives by encouraging people who witness an overdose to call for help immediately.
"We're hoping that it's going to save another family from going through the hell we've been living," said Ann McGhee, mother of Dillon McGhee, an Atlee High School graduate who died of an August 2017 overdose in Chesterfield County at age 26.
Virginia’s prior "good Samaritan" law was criticized as one of the weakest in the country. It shielded someone who calls for medical help for an overdose from prosecution - but only if they “substantially" cooperate with law enforcement "in any investigation of any criminal offense reasonably related to an overdose."
McGhee said, "That's the fear - if someone does overdose and they call for help, they're going to go to jail. Now with this new law, we're hoping people will get people help when they need it."
The new law drops the cooperation requirement, although the person who supplied the overdose drugs would not be spared from prosecution.
In addition to illegal drugs, the new law also applies to the unlawful purchase, possession or consumption of alcohol, public intoxication and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Dillon's parents, Ann and Seward McGhee, do not know if Dillon's life would have been saved had the law named after her been in effect in 2017. But they are confident it will save other lives.
"We just want to get the word out," said Ann McGhee. She and her husband were present last week when Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation - which passed both houses of the General Assembly unanimously - into law.
They credited state Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, with getting the bill passed. McDougle and Seward McGhee are both former Hanover County prosecutors.
Ann McGhee said that "people have reached out to me from other recovery groups around the country ... trying to get the same law in their state because their loved was left to die with no one to help them because they were scared if they called for help that they would be arrested."
In August 2017, a person visiting a house where McGhee appeared to have overdosed called police after the caller left. When police arrived to investigate, the homeowner refused to allow a search of his residence and held the officers at bay for 17 minutes.
When police finally entered the home they found McGhee's body in the laundry closet, where the man - now serving five years in prison - had put her.