THE BLOG
01/05/2015 11:37 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2015

Fearing Arrest when Calling 911 for Overdose

Krivinis via Getty Images

911 Overdose Good Samaritan Laws that grant immunity from prosecution when calling 911 during an overdose are enacted in 20 states. Although each state may have different readings of the legislation, little is done to inform the public; there are no billboards, no public service announcements and no radio airtime. Individuals do not recognize the signs of overdose, nor do they understand that 911 should be called. People hesitate, panic and fear arrest. In New York, however, anti-heroin public service announcements will be airing in theaters. To expand New York's efforts to attack heroin addiction, new videos about addiction and recovery are posted on the state website at www.combatheroin.ny.gov.

In addition to videos, the site encourages individuals to call 911 during an overdose in New York. From their website:

Good Samaritan Law

Some individuals may fear that police will respond to a 911 call and there will be criminal charges for themselves or for the person who overdosed. Those fears should NEVER keep anyone from calling 911 immediately. It may be a matter of life or death.

In September 2011, the 911 Good Samaritan Law went into effect to address fears about a police response to an overdose. This law provides significant legal protection against criminal charges and prosecution for possession of controlled substances, as well as possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. This protection applies to both the person seeking assistance in good faith, as well as to the person who has overdosed. Class A-1 drug felonies, as well as sale or intent to sell controlled substances, are not covered by the law.

While NY is encouraging individuals to call 911, the website information is deceiving. Although the wording may state, significant protection, not everyone in the state of NY may call 911 and be protected. New York's 911 Good Samaritan Law allows only select groups of individuals protection from arrest, the rest are left to fend for themselves and pray that they do not die during an overdose situation.

NY, not unlike other states that have 911 Good Samaritan Laws, do not protect those on probation, participants in drug treatment court, those on parole or those awaiting trail. Drug overdoses may also be reported to state-run benefit programs jeopardizing housing and assistance for those in need.

It is easy to exclude marginalized populations from protection when writing 911 Good Samaritan legislation; they have broken the law, are state criminals or may be accepting state benefits. Even though no longer in prison, law enforcement and prosecutors lobby to exclude these individuals. Tough on crime legislators stand firm that these individuals continually need to be taught a lesson, even if that lesson is death.

According to 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, there are 151,400 people on parole or probation in New York state. In addition, thousands of juveniles are under state probation supervision. Many of these individuals have mental health and substance abuse issues and may need 911 emergency care more than others. They are trying to get their life back together, seek care for alcohol or drug issues, keep a job or return to school and patch relationships with family or friends. Found with drugs, their probation or parole terms broken, they are arrested and returned to prison. When needing overdose emergency care, they, along with family members, fear arrest. In 2011, those lobbying for overdose prevention laws lost site of marginalized individuals and excluded them from the 911 Good Samaritan Law. Governor Cuomo signed legislation that chose to limit open access to emergency life saving care as well as the opioid reversing medication, naloxone.

Taking the lead from NY groups lobbying for 911 Good Samaritan Laws and access to naloxone are compromising their well-intentioned beliefs as they chose to protect one person's child over another. Legislators and governors, who are trying to save lives, may applaud their 911 Overdose Good Samaritan Laws as life-saving, but unless these laws apply to all, overdose deaths will continue to be the norm. The life-saving call will not be made.

Despite legislation that puts the opioid reversal medication naloxone in the hands of those that my need it, the death count from overdose continues to stay stable or is even rising in some states. Rhode Island, the state that has both a 911 Good Samaritan Law as well as access to naloxone, has seen a rise in overdose, where 10 people died in the first 14 days of December 2014 alone. State and local law enforcement officials are attributing the rise in overdose deaths to the mixture of fentanyl, a powerful pain opioid used for those with cancer, that may be added to street heroin, cocaine or another illegal drug. These individuals may experience overdose symptoms faster than they thought possible. Getting naloxone into the system of an individual that is overdosing on this mixture is of the utmost urgency; naloxone also reverses the effects of fentanyl. Overdose is preventable, getting to these individuals quickly can save lives.

Governors in 28 states in the U.S. have signed various forms of naloxone overdose legislation. State governments are appropriating more money for naloxone training and distribution, community centers are getting access to naloxone and are trying to educate their staff about the importance of having this medication on hand, and in some states pharmacies have easy access to those that may need it. Despite all of these efforts, if the layperson and the rest of the public are not aware of this medication, overdose deaths will continue to stay stable or rise across the US. Furthermore, if individuals are not educated to call 911 in cases of overdose and fear arrest, all the naloxone efforts may be inconsequential.

In 2015 states can do more then discuss and enact life saving legislation that applies to some. States that have 911 Good Samaritan Laws need to expand their laws to ensure that all have access to emergency care during an overdose without fear of arrest. States that have yet to enact 911 Good Samaritan Laws cannot afford to follow legislation examples in states such as NY. Individual lives are at stake, 911 good samaritan legislation needs to apply to ALL, not just select groups of individuals. It should not be a crime to call for emergency care.

After well-written laws are passed, simple public service announcements and educational announcements need broadcasting to inform the public that the victim and caller are protected when calling 911 during an overdose. Naloxone medications should not just be available to hospitals, ambulances and first responders, but be openly available, affordable and advertised to all that need it.

Let's hope that in 2015 state legislators do not compromise. They must send a message that
every person's life is worth saving. Do not fear arrest, Save a Life -- Call 911.

Helpful Links:

Understanding Naloxone

To check states 911 Good Samaritan and Naloxone Legislation, visit
http://www.networkforphl.org