According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses kill more Americans than auto accidents. The most recent statistics report 27,000 Americans died of drug overdose in 2007. While most deaths result from prescription medication overdoses, recreational drugs account for a significant number of deaths.
Most fatal overdoses kill within one to three hours of ingestion, so prompt medical attention is vital. Many cases of “recreational” drug overdose occur in the presence of other people who could call for emergency assistance. However, onlookers and friends often avoid calling 911, fearing drug possession charges.
By enacting Good Samaritan Emergency Response Laws (also called Medical Amnesty Laws), states encourage people to phone for help when someone overdoses.
How Good Samaritan Laws Work
Approximately 12 states have passed Medical Amnesty laws. While individual state laws have slightly different criteria, Good Samaritan protects people from prosecution if they call for drug-related medical emergencies.
Some laws simply don’t charge the 911 caller or user for possession or minor drug offenses. Others waive criminal charges but insist on a period of drug detox and counseling after the emergency. Two states — Maryland and Alaska — do not grant amnesty but consider calling for emergency help a mitigating factor in drug trials.
In addition, colleges, universities and some municipalities have their own Good Samaritan laws or policies. The policies save lives. According to a study of Cornell University’s Good Samaritan Policy, emergency calls for drug overdoses on campus rose after the policy came into effect in 2003.
Opposition to Good Samaritan Drug Wars
Not everyone agrees with Medical Amnesty laws. In 2012 the New Jersey state Assembly and Senate passed a Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act, only to have the bill vetoed by State Governor Chris Christie. Christie expressed concerns the law could protect people from legal prosecution, but said he would consider signing the bill after an 18-month study of drug overdoses.
Interestingly enough, New Jersey passed a similar law in 2009 to protect 911 callers from prosecution after underage drinking emergencies. Both alcohol and street drugs can kill, but many people still think street drug users should be prosecuted in the courts, rather than offered help through a drug detox facility.
Good Samaritan laws are designed to save lives, not give drug users a “free pass” from drug-related crimes. While many laws grant amnesty for drug possession, the laws do not protect against more serious charges, such as selling illegal drugs.
Getting the Word Out
Educating the public on Good Samaritan laws is essential: unless people know the law exists, their behavior during overdose emergencies don’t change. Once people understand the law, however, 911 calls increase. University of Washington researchers studying the effects of Washington’s 911 Good Samaritan Law report 88 percent of opiate users would be more likely to call 911 now that they understand the law.
Photo: Guian Bolisay