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Good Samaritans: a surprising new strategy in drug law

Posted on 01-06-16 in News & Announcements

No year is a good year for anyone caught up in substance abuse, but 2014 was notable for being an exceptionally bad year: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported deaths from drug overdoses reached an all-time high in 2014, with 47,055 deaths. That’s 1.5 times greater than deaths from car crashes, and a 14 percent increase from 2013.

Opioids are involved in 61 percent of all overdose deaths. It’s a family of narcotics including prescription painkillers like OxyContin, street drugs like heroin and powerful synthetic derivatives like fentanyl. Deaths from synthetic opioids increased by 80 percent this year.

So clearly, the U.S. has a problem. It’s largely recognized that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease like diabetes and asthma, yet it’s also different from those diseases: patients with diabetes don’t face arrest when their disease leads them into medical crisis.

Punished for seeking aid

One of the many dangers addicts face is being on the wrong side of the law. Many substances people abuse aren’t legal to possess. Calling 911 when someone overdoses is a decision often risky for addicts – on one hand, many first responders carry a drug called naloxone which reverses opiate overdoses but on the other hand there’s a substantial risk of facing arrest for drug possession when the authorities arrive. There’s not many right choices which can result in arrest; still in many cases drug control policies have created situations where people do not seek out desperately needed help or treatment due to fear of incarceration.

This is changing. More and more states have enacted laws making access to naloxone easier – California’s law allows pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription. More interestingly, the Drug Policy Alliance reports 32 states have passed “Good Samaritan” laws which provide limited protections from arrest or drug charges for people who call the authorities for help when they’re present at an overdose.

The laws help, but there’s problems

Naloxone plays a highly important role in harm reduction – it’s an opioid antagonist which blocks the effects opioids have on the body. It isn’t a controlled substance; naloxone can’t be abused and it’s been used for years by paramedics and emergency room staffers to treat overdoses. The problem is, many opioid abusers are reluctant to call 911 when overdoses happen. Police often respond to 911 calls on overdoses and since many opioid abusers are on parole, have prior arrests or are otherwise reluctant to be identified, calling 911 is a last resort.

A study published in the “American Journal of Public Health” reported people call 911 only 10 to 56 percent of the time during overdoses. Making naloxone easier to obtain, especially for people who find themselves in environments where overdoses are common, might help stem the tide against overdoses.

They seem to work, too. A study by the University of Washington took a look at results from the state’s 911 Good Samaritan overdose law passed in 2010. Researchers found 88 percent of opiate users reported they were more likely to call 911 during overdoses once they were made aware of the state’s new law.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside – most of the drug users the study talked to were unaware of the law’s passage, and only 16 percent of the police officers also surveyed were aware of the law. Indeed, the Washington state Legislature gave no specific state agency responsibility for putting the law into practice and provided no money for implementing it.

Other states have tried to increase awareness of their own laws – the Drug Policy Alliance printed one million cards and posters explaining the law and instructions about responding to overdoses after New York passed their Good Samaritan law in 2011.

Only so much protection

It’s important to remember Good Samaritan laws do not provide protection for other drug-related offenses like drugged driving or drug dealing. These laws only protect the person who’s overdosing and the person who called for help from being arrested or prosecuted for drug possession, being under the influence and/or having drug paraphernalia.

Given the health risks and legal dangers associated with drug use, it’s important for addicts to seek help. The Sovereign Health Group has a comprehensive drug treatment program which treats both addiction and the underlying disorders often driving substance abuse. Our therapies reduce the risk of relapse because they are tailored to the individual’s needs and issues. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

Written by Brian Moore, Sovereign Health Group writer