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911 Callers Who Report Overdoses Shouldn't Get Hit with Drug Charges

New laws seek to encourage life-saving 911 calls by protecting people who overdose or call for help from drug charges.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/deepblue-photographer


Most people wouldn’t hesitate to call 911 if a loved one was having a heart attack. During those moments of panic and fear, it’s comforting to reach for the phone where a calm voice on the other end assures us help is on the way.

Unfortunately, when it comes to America’s fastest growing public health crisis, drug overdose, calling for help is not always a viable option. Because many, though not all, overdoses involve illicit substances or mis-used prescription medications, seeking help can result in the arrest of both caller and victim for possession of drugs and paraphernalia.  Studies show that fewer than half of overdose witnesses call 911 for fear of legal repercussions, and those who do often pay the price behind bars. Many choose not to seek help, hoping the victim will recover without aid. It’s a dangerous game of Russian roulette, one with tens of thousands of casualties annually.

Drug overdose now claims  36,000 lives a year in the United States (more than car accidents and murder combined), and people are beginning to recognize the implications of a dilemma in which the risk of a friend’s death must be weighed against the instinct for self-preservation. In response, 12 states and the District of Columbia have enacted  911 Good Samaritan laws, legislation that grants limited immunity from some drug crimes to people who experience an overdose or call for help. New Mexico blazed the first trail in 2007, followed by a swift succession of laws passed in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. The laws vary in terms of immunities, but the message is the same: saving lives is more important than making arrests. 

This year nearly a dozen more states introduced bills; legislation in  North CarolinaNew Jersey and Vermont emerged victorious, while other bills were strangled by partisan bickering (Missouri, Mississippi and North Dakota), killed in committee (New Hampshire and West Virginia), or simply ran out of time (Hawaii and Texas). Maine’s bill was vetoed by the Governor.

Although the demise of many promising bills is unfortunate, proponents of 911 Good Samaritan laws have collected valuable lessons for future advocacy; namely, build a strong coalition, be ready when the legislative session starts, be strategic about choosing a sponsor, know your opposition and be present at legislative hearings and committees.

Perhaps no state demonstrated strong coalition-building more than New Jersey. Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey division of the Drug Policy Alliance, headed the efforts to pass a 911 Good Samaritan law in her state. Before introducing a bill in January 2012, Scotti and her team built up a large coalition of drug treatment providers, overdose prevention groups, public health organizations, law enforcement, medical providers, and parents who had lost children to a drug overdose. Each of these groups played a critical role in educating legislators, whether to reassure them that a 911 Good Samaritan bill would not encourage drug use, to demonstrate law enforcement support, or to provide heartbreaking stories of personal loss and a plea that other families be spared such pain. With broad bipartisan support, the bill rolled smoothly through the legislature to the governor’s desk, where it was promptly vetoed.

“We were shocked at Governor Christie’s veto,” says Roseanne Scotti. “He’d never voiced opposition before. He said something about not wanting to give a free pass to drug dealers, but that’s not what this bill is about.”

Disappointed but determined to press on, the coalition launched campaigns in local municipalities urging the governor to reconsider and begged the legislature to override the veto. Over the next few months, letters poured into the capital pleading for a change of heart and parents flooded the state house, passing out red roses with the names of their lost children to stunned legislators.

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