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New State Laws Grant Immunity for 911 Overdose Calls

In an attempt to curb the rising number of overdose-related deaths, several states passed legislation this year that gives legal immunity to people who call 911 to report a drug overdose.

P.J.M. Flickr cc
P.J.M. *extremely slow on flickr :( sorry*/Flickr CC
Illinois, Colorado and Florida this year have passed legislation that gives legal immunity to people who call 911 to report a companion’s drug overdose. The intent is to curb the number of deaths due to drug overdoses, which have soared nationally in recent years.

The legislation -- widely referred to as the “911 Good Samaritan” law -- is designed to eliminate legal concerns that may prevent people from seeking proper medical treatment. Under the laws, both the person calling 911 as well as a companion in need of medical treatment are granted immunity.

In 2007, New Mexico was the first state to pass a 911 Good Samaritan law. Since then New York, Washington, Connecticut have passed similar laws, in addition to the three states that took action this year.

Nationwide, drug overdoses are on the rise. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 41,592 deaths in the U.S. due to "poisoning," a category that primarily includes drug-related deaths. That figure has more than doubled since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that works to reform drug policy, has pushed for the legislation across the country. “I think what we are really seeing right now is momentum,” said Meghan Ralston, a harm reduction coordinator with the organization. “I think part of it is just the growing importance of dealing with drug overdoses and the collective unconscious realizing that we know how to deal with this problem, by enacting legislation that protects people who do the right thing.”

The ways the laws are implemented vary based on each state’s existing drug laws. In Colorado, people are protected from prosecution – not arrest – and only those in possession of small amounts of drugs are immune, since legislators didn’t want drug dealers to skirt the law. “This is not a get out of jail free card,” said Colorado State Sen. Irene Aguilar, who sponsored the bill. “We in no way wanted to let drug dealers off the hook with this legislation.”

In 2009, there were 915 poisoning deaths in Colorado, according to the CDC. Nationally, more people ages 25 to 64 died from poisoning than auto crashes in 2009.

Supporters of the legislation say in order for it to be effective, people need to be aware that the immunity provisions exist. Yet none of the Good Samaritan Laws have a public education component. “One of the reasons these laws pass without a great deal of time and back and forth is that they generally do not have any appropriation or fund requirement attached to them,” Ralston said, “Money would need to be appropriated for public education.

DPA is working on an education campaign to inform people in drug rehabilitation programs, recently released prison inmates, and others in high-risk demographics of the new laws. It’s also working to educate relevant agencies about the legislation. For example, it’s hoping public housing agencies will agree not to evict people who call 911 to report drug overdoses.

“We are hoping that we can change as many policies as possible through education, so that calling 911 will be second nature,” says Evan Goldstein, a policy coordinator in DPA’s New York office.

Communications manager for the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute and former Governing staff writer
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