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Heath Ledger's Tragic Overdose Death And What Can be Done To Prevent Others


Heath Ledger's haunting role as the Joker in the Dark Knight will hit the screens nationwide this weekend. The critics have been raving about Heath's "dark" Joker performance and there is already buzz that he might win an Oscar for the role posthumously.

Until very recently, I lived down the block from Heath Ledger and his wife, Michelle Williams, in Brooklyn. I found myself hit hard by the news of Ledger's accidental overdose death and continue to be disturbed every time I see photos of him, either out of costume or in his role of the Joker. I often used to see Ledger and Williams walking around the neighborhood with their young daughter. It is heartbreaking to think about that young girl never again being able to spend time with her father.

While tens of millions now have heard of Heath's tragic death, far fewer are aware of America's overdose epidemic. Accidental deaths from illegal and increasingly from legal drugs have doubled in the last decade. An estimated 22,000 Americans died last year alone from accidental overdoses, second only to motor vehicle accidents. More people died of accidental overdoses in New York last year than from murder. Yet our government spends not a single federal penny on overdose prevention!

Fortunately, some states are taking the initiative and deciding to do something about these preventable deaths. Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and other cities are starting to make available Narcan, an opiate antagonist that immediately and reliably reverses drug overdoses and saves the lives of drug users. This life-saving medicine has already saved thousands of lives and returned loved ones to their families and friends.

Another way states and elected officials can save lives is by passing "911 Good Samaritan" immunity legislation. Most overdose deaths happen in witness of others. If someone calls 911 right away, most people can be saved. Tragically, too many people don't call 911 because they fear arrest and prosecution for drug law violations. This leaves people in the situation of deciding between saving a life and keeping themselves from being arrested.

New Mexico broke ground last year when the State legislature passed and Governor Bill Richardson signed the first "911 Good Samarian" law that provides immunity from arrest to witnesses of overdose who summon emergency services. It should never be a crime to call 911 to save a life. Now New York, Maryland, California and other states are considering similar legislation. In June, the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) adopted a resolution that sets forth a comprehensive strategy for cities and states to reduce overdose morbidity and mortality by supporting local programs that distribute naloxone directly to drug users, their friends, families and communities and urging state governments to adopt emergency "Good Samaritan" policies. Adopted resolutions become the official policy of the USCM, which speaks as one voice to promote best practices and the most pressing priorities of our nation's cities.

There is nothing we can do to bring back the life of Heath Ledger. But we can learn from the tragedy and pass compassionate and sensible legislation to save thousands of others like him.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)