911 Good Samaritan Laws – Because Saving A Life Shouldn’t Get You Arrested
Here’s an interesting fact; addiction is a bipartisan disease. It can and does affect people of all races, ages, genders, religions and, yes, political perspectives. For decades, though, the United States War on drugs has politicized substance abuse and enforced policies that some experts argue have needlessly increased the number of people dying from accidental drug overdoses.
Harm reduction policies, such as Good Samaritan Laws that protect people from prosecution and arrest when they call 911 to report a drug overdose, can save lives.
Overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in this country, claiming more lives in the 25 to 64 year old demographic than even car crashes. The misuse and abuse of opioid prescription painkillers, drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin, are in large part responsible for the rising death toll. The number one reason individuals witnessing an accidental drug overdose hesitate or don’t call 911 is fear of police involvement and arrest.
In an overdose situation, a rapid response is the difference between life and death. Medical science has advanced enough that it can very often reverse the effects of an overdose if treated immediately. Drugs, like Naloxone (Narcan), are very effective in preventing or reversing an opioid overdose, but historically they have not been easy to come by. Luckily, that is now changing across the country.
How Do Good Samaritan Laws Work?
In the U.S. only twenty states, plus the District of Columbia (D.C.), have adopted some type of Good Samaritan law as it relates to accidental drug overdoses. These laws usually shield people from arrest for drug possession and underage drinking to varying degrees depending on the state.
D.C.’s Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act, singed into law in 2012, is likely the most comprehensive and encompasses the following:
- A person in an emergency overdose situation is protected from prosecution when they call 911 for themself
- Witnesses to an overdose can’t be arrested for calling 911, even if their presence in that situation is a parole violation
- Any illegal evidence found in the process of providing healthcare to an overdose victim cannot be used against them
- The possession of naloxone, which can rapidly reverse opiate overdoses, and its use on a person experiencing an overdose is decriminalized
So far there are few, if any, statistics on the number of lives saved due to the enactment of Good Samaritan laws. Another issue is that state and local governments have done very little in the way of public awareness campaigns surrounding the laws. Therefore, in communities around the country, many people don’t even know these protections exist.
The process of depoliticizing addiction is moving very slowly. There is, however, some positive momentum toward making substance abuse a health issue rather than a legal one. Good Samaritan laws are a step in the right direction. They are not, of course, a substitute for treating addiction.
Nevertheless, common sense suggests that if lives are saved, individuals then have the opportunity to seek treatment, recover and have the potential to lead productive, happy and healthy lives.
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