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The origins of Georgia’s overdose amnesty law

The 911 amnesty law was the brainchild of Justin Leef, whose childhood friend, Zack Elliott, was found dead of a heroin overdose in the backseat of his car in “The Bluff” in northwest Atlanta. 

Elliott’s friends apparently would not call 911 or drop him off at a hospital out of fear that they would be arrested. So they abandoned him.

In 2012, Leef received an internship at the state Legislature and was assigned to work for Marietta Republican Sharon Cooper, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee. 

Just before the 2014 session began, he brought nine women to Cooper’s home. Most of them had lost children to drug overdoses, and all arrived carrying photos of their dead sons and daughters.

Justin Leef helped push for Georgia to adopt an amnesty law after a childhood friend died of a heroin overdose (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Cooper recalled one mother saying that friends of her son had dumped his body on her front lawn after he overdosed. 

“They didn’t want to get into trouble,” Cooper said.

After the parents left, Cooper said she felt compelled to sponsor the legislation. 

Despite some opposition, the amnesty law was enacted during the 2014 General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal.

The legislation has been credited with saving hundreds of lives.

Sharon Cooper (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“It’s one of the bills I’m most proud of,” Cooper said. “Minutes matter as far as someone’s life being saved.”

Justin Leef also feels some satisfaction.“I wanted to make something out of Zack’s death,” he said.

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