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One Year Later: Heath Ledger's Tragic Overdose Death Reminds Us More Must Be Done

Posted: 01/22/09 07:03 PM ET

Health Ledger was nominated for a posthumous Oscar award today for his haunting role as the Joker in the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight. The announcement happens to coincide with the anniversary of Heath Ledger's tragic overdose death last year in New York.

Since the late 1980s, it's become traditional to see Oscar presenters on TV prominently displaying red AIDS ribbons drawing attention to an epidemic that claimed nearly 15,000 lives in 2006. This year, the anniversary of Heath Ledger's death should call attention to another though largely unrecognized national crisis -- preventable deaths from drug overdose.

Accidental drug overdoses cause the death of more than 22,000 Americans every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdose now ranks as a leading cause of preventable death, second only to motor-vehicle accidents. Accidental overdoses killed more Americans last year than did firearms. Yet no federal agency is tasked with mitigating this national health crisis.

Perhaps that's due to the misconception by some that overdose fatalities are mainly the problem of drug addicts, unworthy of our concern or compassion. That's nonsense. All lives are worth saving; all families matter and none of them should ever have to experience the devastating tragedy of a fatal overdose. In fact, as in Ledger's case, anyone who takes opioid painkillers or anti-anxiety medications is at risk. Perhaps surprisingly, there is evidence to suggest that pharmaceutical drugs, often misused and diverted, are now three times more likely to have caused a fatal overdose than all illicit street drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, combined.

Fortunately, some cities and states are taking the initiative to address these preventable deaths. Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York and other cities are starting to make available naloxone, a low-cost, easy-to-use medicine with no potential for abuse that immediately reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Naloxone, distributed to at-risk populations through syringe-exchange programs and other means, has already saved thousands of lives and returned loved ones to their families and friends. Naloxone starts working immediately by temporarily restoring breathing for 30 to 75 minutes, allowing someone enough time to call 911 and save a life.

Overdoses usually happen in witness of others and, if someone calls 911 right away, most people can be saved. One barrier to making that call to 911, however, is the fear of criminal prosecution for drug law violations. The fear is real. Drug arrests can ruin lives in another way, with incarceration and lifetime of stigma and economic destitution. It should never be a crime to call 911 to save a life.

States and elected officials are saving lives by making it easier to call for help with "911 Good Samaritan" immunity legislation. New Mexico broke ground in 2007 when the state legislature passed and Gov. Bill Richardson signed the first such law in the country that provides limited immunity from arrest to victims and witnesses of overdose who summon emergency services. Now New York, Maryland, California and other states are considering similar legislation.

Clearly, our country needs more education and outreach when it comes to preventing overdoses and reducing overdose fatalities. A shift in law enforcement's approach to drug problems from incarceration to treatment would do much to get this national crisis out in the open and begin a dialog. Many hope the incoming administration will take a hard look at our nation's drug policies, support for which Mr. Obama voiced while on the campaign trail. Congress should work with the president-elect to pass comprehensive overdose prevention legislation this year. There is nothing we can do to bring back Heath Ledger but we can learn from the tragedy and enact compassionate and sensible legislation to save thousands of others like him.

Isaac Skelton is the former director of publications for the Drug Policy Alliance www.drugpolicy.org. Meghan Ralston is the Los Angeles harm reduction coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, which is releasing a new report next month, "Preventing Overdose, Saving Lives: Strategies for Combating a National Crisis."