Drug overdose is the number one cause of death in America for people under the age of 50. Even as it is now considered a national epidemic, much work remains in terms of access to treatment, overdose prevention and fighting stigma.
The simple act of calling 911 for emergency help may have prevented a majority of these deaths. First responders and EMTs now carry the drug naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose almost immediately. However, overdose witnesses are often frightened to call for help for fear of being arrested, and some states have laws limiting the carrying and administering of naloxone.
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What Are Good Samaritan Laws?
Emergency services are called in an overdose situation less than 56 percent of the time. What’s more, as police are most commonly the first responders to 911 calls, a large portion of them search and interrogate those who made the call. In several cases where the overdose victim has died, witnesses have been arrested for manslaughter. It is no wonder that those trying to help hesitate before calling 911, which can lead to overdose victims stranded without medical attention.
But hope is on the horizon. Strides are being made by states who recently amended laws — known as 911 Good Samaritan Laws — in an effort to increase access to emergency care and treatment for those who overdose. Good Samaritan laws offer limited immunity from arrest, charge and prosecution for the possession of certain drugs and drug paraphernalia (including underage drinking offences).
These laws benefit individuals in need of immediate assistance, and for those who seek medical care in good faith for someone who has overdosed. Those who reach out are also relieved from penalties for violation of other legal restrictions, such as probation and parole, if the penalties are related to seeking medical assistance.
Good Samaritan laws also expand access to naloxone by authorizing its use by trained first responders and other emergency services, as well as lay people (i.e. witnesses or other drug users). Ultimately, the enactment of the new laws give witnesses, or other people using drugs, the immunity they need to save a life.
Making Progress for Good Samaritans
New Mexico was the first state to approve 911 Good Samaritan Laws in 2007. As of 2016, 44 states have taken action to increase access to emergency medical care for drug overdose. However, the scope of protection these laws provide still varies by state. For example, Connecticut provides full immunity, while Alaska only considers emergency calls during drug-related sentencing.
Almost the same as 911 Good Samaritan Laws, Medical Amnesty Laws exist on over 240 college and university campuses (applicable to minors) with the same aim: to prioritize medical necessities over penalties or legal consequence. These laws have led to an increase in the number of calls to emergency services and help decrease fear amongst students about calling for help.
What is clear is that the introduction of these laws are encouraging people to seek help and they are improving the chance of survival from overdose. Washington State found that 88 percent of opioid users are now more likely to call 911 in an overdose situation, and more witnesses can call for help without repercussions. Every day, more lives are being saved with the enactment of this new legislation. While new laws may not end the overdose epidemic, they are a step in the right direction.
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Corey Davis, JD, MSPH, ‘”Georgia’s 911 Medical Amnesty Law” Network for Public Health Law—Southeast Region
Kim D, Irwin K, Khoshnood K. “Expanded Access to Naloxone: Options for Critical Response to the Epidemic of Opioid Overdose Mortality.” American Journal of Public Health. March 2009.
Lewis DK, Marchell TC. “Safety first: A medical amnesty approach to alcohol poisoning at a U.S. university.” Gannett Health Services, Cornell University. 7 Feb 2006.