03/18/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

D.C.'s 'Good Samaritan Law' Addressing Overdose Deaths Takes Effect On Tuesday

A new law aimed at encouraging people to seek emergency medical attention during drug and alcohol overdoses will take effect in the District of Columbia on Tuesday.

The legislation, known as the "Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Amendment Act of 2012," was introduced to the D.C. Council by Councilmembers Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). It was signed by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray in December 2012.

"The goal of Bill 19-754 is to eliminate reluctance to call for emergency medical services during an overdose," reads the Judiciary Committee's report on the legislation. "The idea is that the awareness that there will not be legal ramifications for certain offenses will make it more likely that an individual either experiencing or witnessing an overdose will call 911, because the fear of police involvement will be diminished."

The legislation decriminalizes certain legal offenses for individuals suffering an overdose or a bystander that called for medical help for someone that was. From the Drug Policy Alliance:

  • Law enforcement officers who observe small amounts of illegal drugs or paraphernalia at the scene of an overdose should not consider these drug law violations to be crimes for the individual experiencing the overdose and the witness who sought emergency medical services.
  • A minor is provided limited protection from criminal charges for underage possession of alcohol if they experience an overdose or seek emergency medical services for a peer.
  • An adult who is 25 years of age or younger is given limited protection from criminal charges for providing alcohol or other drugs to a minor who is 16 years of age or older if they seek emergency medical services for the minor in need.
  • The possession of naloxone – a medication that rapidly reverses opiate overdoses – and its use by laypersons on individuals experiencing an opiate overdose is decriminalized.

Ten states have already passed similar "Good Samaritan Laws" to address what is said to be a national problem. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that drug overdose deaths had increased for the previous 11 straight years. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, more deaths are caused by drug overdoses than by firearms, homicides or HIV/AIDS.

In 2011, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington studied the effect of Washington state's "Good Samaritan Law," which was implemented the previous year to combat accidental drug and alcohol overdose deaths. It found that 88 percent of opiate users that were aware of the law would be more likely to seek emergency medical attention during an overdose.

"Given the substantial impact of drug overdoses in both human and economic terms, and the lack of apparent negative consequences of Good Samaritan overdose laws, other states should consider this legislative approach as an integral part of their plan to improve public health," the report concluded.

“Implementation of this new law by public health and law enforcement officials is critical to improving public willingness to immediately seek medical assistance for overdoses involving illegal drug and alcohol use,” said Grant Smith -- policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance -- in a statement to reporters.

Drug overdose deaths are an acute problem for DC. In its 2010 annual report, the District of Columbia Chief Medical Examiner found that accidental drug overdoses led to almost twice the number of deaths as traffic accidents.



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