When it comes to saving lives and preventing unnecessary deaths due to drug overdose, Good Samaritan Laws, also known as overdose or 911 laws, are absolutely essential. Yet it wasn't until 2007 that the first Good Samaritan style law was adopted in the United States by New Mexico, and even today in more than 30 states, calling for help from the scene of an overdose could possibly land you behind bars. Pretty sobering stuff, right?
Many users who are present at the time of, or witness an overdose are hesitant to call for help from emergency responders. Why would anyone hesitate to call for help in such a dire situation? Well, there are many different reasons which can range widely. From worries of confidentiality or being outed as a drug addict, having outstanding warrants, assuming it could be handled without medical assistance, too intoxicated or high to effectively asses and respond to the situation, not knowing what to do or panicking, worrying about victims reaction to seeking assistance, discrimination and stigma, all the way to the costs of treatment, there is absolutely no shortage of reasons for not seeking assistance. The most common reason though, is when there is a big possibility of punishment as a result of seeking emergency medical assistance, many witnesses often opt out of calling for help. People who use illegal drugs often fear arrest if they call 911 for help, even in a cases of a friend or family member needing assistance.
"The chance of surviving an overdose, like that of a heart attack, depends greatly on how fast one receives medical assistance. Witnesses to heart attacks rarely think twice about calling 911, but witnesses to an overdose often hesitate to call for help or, in many cases, simply don't make the call. In fact, research confirms the most common reason people cite for not calling 911 is fear of police involvement".
"Risk of criminal prosecution or civil litigation can deter medical professionals, drug users, and bystanders from aiding overdose victims. Well crafted legislation can provide simple protections to alleviate these fears, improve emergency overdose responses, and save lives".
Currently, there are some states that have policies and/or laws in place that help to provide limited immunity from arrest and prosecution of minor drug law violations if the person is calling for or requesting help in the case of an overdose. The laws generally only protect the caller and the person in need of medical attention, and do not extend to selling or trafficking, or other witnesses who may be present at the scene. Even in the situations where the life saving drug Naloxone is available, many people are often hesitant to administer it to the person in need because of fear of civil or criminal prosecution or repercussions.
Luckily, there are positive changes taking place in this regard according to the Network for Public Health Law.
"Since most of these barriers are rooted in unintentional consequences of laws passed for other purposes, they may be addressed through relatively simple changes to those laws. At the urging of organizations including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, a number of states have addressed the overdose epidemic by removing some legal barriers to the seeking of emergency medical care and timely administration of Naloxone".
Not all of the Good Samaritan laws on the books are created the same though, which becomes very evident when you start to compare the difference between states. Some are quite broad, covering all non-felony drug related charges, while others impose restrictions on the person seeking help. If you've got a criminal record, or were the one who supplied the drugs, you can kiss that immunity from prosecution goodbye, regardless of whether or not you've just saved a life. While these laws are generally a great step forward, these vast differences amongst state laws can add to the confusion and hesitation amongst witnesses.
Studies have shown that drug users support these positive changes as well. According to a 2011 study by the University of Washington, it was found that 88% of opiate users polled said that they would in fact be more likely to call for emergency medical assistance during future overdoses at the implementation of Good Samaritan style laws. Which such a profound increase in the number of people willing to provide assistance in the case of an overdose if they are immune from punishment and prosecution for minor offences, it's hard to deny the fact that these laws will help save lives.
In the case of addiction and overdose, it is so vitally important that we are supporting, and not punishing those affected. Lives depend on it.
Image via Students for Sensible Drug Policy