07/24/2011 02:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2011

Gov. Cuomo Signs Law to Help Reduce Overdose Deaths

A national crisis has emerged as the number of overdose deaths from both legal and illegal drugs has skyrocketed. Now New York is taking action to stem the crisis.

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed bipartisan legislation to reduce preventable overdose fatalities, making New York the most recent -- and largest -- state to enact such a law. Called Good Samaritan 911, the law encourages people to call for emergency services in the event of an overdose. In his message approving the legislation, Gov. Cuomo expressed support for health-based interventions to prevent overdose: "The benefit to be gained by the bill -- saving lives -- must be paramount," he wrote.

Overdose prevention measures are desperately needed. Nationally, in 2007 (the most recent data available) over 27,000 people died from accidental overdoses. New York is among the many states where accidental overdose deaths outnumber automobile related fatalities; Long Island alone averages nearly one overdose death every day. Accidental overdose is a huge, silent crisis across the U.S.

Fortunately, most of these deaths are preventable.

Most drug overdoses occur in the home and in the presence of others. While fatal accidental drug overdoses can be prevented if emergency services are contacted soon enough, most people witnessing a drug overdose -- whether the drugs used are legal or illegal -- don't call for emergency help. Why?

Studies have found that for those witnessing a drug overdose, the majority hesitate to call emergency services due to fear of arrest for drug possession. In short, people are afraid of calling 911 and getting a ride in the back of a cop car instead of an ambulance, leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths every year.

To encourage people to seek help in an overdose emergency, New York's 911 Good Samaritan policy seeks to alleviate fears associated with calling 911. The measure provides limited protections from charge and prosecution for possession of small amounts of drugs, and also protects against arrest for misdemeanor possession of residual amounts of drugs or paraphernalia. The law also offers limited protection from charge and prosecution for "sharing," which in New York -- as well as other states -- is considered a sales offense. Those who possess large amounts of drugs for sale, or are engaged in drug trafficking, are not protected under the new law.

There was broad, bipartisan support for the measure from parents, student and community groups, and health experts all across New York -- in urban, suburban, and rural areas alike. The bill sponsors -- Senator John DeFrancisco (R, C, IP -- Onondaga County) and Assembly member Dick Gottfried (D, WFP -- Manhattan) -- were joined by both progressive and conservative co-sponsors. The legislation passed unanimously in the Senate and near-unanimously in the Assembly.

Similar laws have been passed in other states to address the crisis: New Mexico (2007), Washington State (2010) and Connecticut (2011) have passed their own versions of 911 Good Samaritan, and numerous other states -- including California, Illinois, and Nebraska -- are considering similar measures. New York is the largest state to enact an expansive 911 Good Samaritan law, providing numerous protections to protect overdose victims and those who call for help, making it a model for other states.

As outlined in a national report by the Drug Policy Alliance, more can be done to address the overdose crisis -- including expanding access to the overdose reversal medication naloxone. Ensuring proper implementation of New York's 911 Good Samaritan policy, and enacting similar prevention measures in other states, is a top priority for advocates, community groups, and health experts seeking to save lives.

"No one should go to jail for trying to save a life," said Hiawatha Collins, a leader and Board member of VOCAL-NY, one of the many groups that worked for the reforms. "This law will help make sure that calling 911 is the first thing someone does if they witness an overdose -- not worry about what the cops will do. New York is making clear that saving lives needs to be our priority, not locking people up."

Gabriel Sayegh is New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance,