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States Lag in Laws Preventing Drug Overdose

A report highlighted in the aftermath of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's apparent heroin overdose notes that most states lack the recommended laws to curb overdose deaths.

Fewer than 20 states have laws that encourage people who have experienced a drug overdose to seek medical help or make medications that counteract the life-threatening effects of drug overdoses widely available, according a recent report from Trust for America’s Health. 

Public health experts recommend states take a number of steps to curb overdose mortalities, which have doubled in 29 states since 1999, according to the Trust. Among those are maintaining so-called “Good Samaritan” and “rescue drug” laws. The recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman of an apparent heroin overdose has further underscored the need for action on the state level, said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust.  

"Philip Seymour Hoffman's death is a tragic reminder of the drug problem in America,” he said in a statement. “There are too many sad stories of tragedies that could have been averted. We need to start by getting past the outdated sense of stigma associated with addiction and focus our energies on effective prevention strategies." 

Groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Medical Association back increased access and relaxed administration of naloxone, a non-addictive drug that counters the effects of an overdose. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have laws that remove civil or even criminal liability for non-medical professionals who administer the drug and allow third-party prescription to the family and friends of drug addicts. Washington state and Rhode Island are putting in place agreements for wider distribution of naloxone by pharmacists.   

At least 188 local overdose prevention programs now distribute naloxone and have provided training to more than 50,000 people, leading to the reversal of 10,000 overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  

“Good Samaritan” laws establish at least some immunity from criminal charges or reduced sentencing for people who seek help for themselves or others who are experiencing a drug overdose. The laws vary significantly by state, but at least 17 and the District of Columbia have legislation in some form. In 13 states the law protects those individuals from possession charges. Vermont goes further, adding protections against asset forfeiture, the revocation of parole or the violation of existing restraining orders. When Washington state passed its “Good Samaritan” law, the state found in a survey that 88 percent of prescription painkiller users would be more likely to call 911 during an overdose with the law in place.  

For the full report and a ranking of states by their drug overdose mortality rates, see here.  

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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