Human Rights

New Maryland 'Good Samaritan' Law Falls Short: It Should Never Be a Crime to Call 911

Two people die almost every day in Md. of a drug-related overdose. Witnesses frequently cite fear of police involvement as the primary reason for hesitating to call 9/11.

Pale face, vomit, slow breathing. She’s not looking too good… should we call for help? There’s no way they’d let her off without jail time. Let’s just let her sleep it off for now, she should be fine in the morning.
Two people die almost every day in Maryland of a drug-related overdose. Consistently, witnesses cite fear of police involvement as the primary reason for hesitating to call for help.
On October 1, Maryland enacted a “Good Samaritan” law that means calling 911 during an alcohol or other drug-related overdose can be used as a mitigating factor in criminal prosecution. However, the legislation was watered-down so that Maryland law enforcement continues to have the right to show up at the scene of a drug overdose, often before an ambulance, and arrest multiple people for drug possession.
Although Maryland has taken a tiny step in the right direction, the decision to prioritize criminalizing drug use over saving lives is appalling. The House recently heard testimony from Dr. Daniel Reardon, whose son died of an alcohol overdose on the University of Maryland- College Park campus because everyone decided to let him “sleep it off” on a couch until his brain ceased functioning, from Lana Dreyfuss, whose friends abandoned her on a bathroom floor while she overdosed on heroin, and from Alise Boule, a Howard County emergency room nurse who noted how often people are scared to call for help or take the victim to the hospital. Yet, the judiciary committee refused to give in, citing concerns about “sending the wrong message.”
Since when has “the wrong message” been one of responsibility and concern for human life? Maryland needs to have smarter public policies that focus on preventing deaths rather than arresting people for small amounts of drugs. There is plenty of time to intervene and prevent an overdose fatality -- most overdose deaths do not occur until one to three hours after the initial injection or ingestion of drugs.
While the Good Samaritan policy received letters of support from Maryland residents and organizations like the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, the National African American Drug Policy Coalition, the National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence, and the Office of the Public Defender, the only opposition to the bill came from the Fraternal Order of Police. Richard Bergin, representative for Baltimore County’s F.O.P., states that people who use drugs have no concept of the notion of “good faith.” Ismael V. Canales, President of the Prince George’s County F.O.P., is convinced that the bill “does nothing but provide just another layer of protection for those that choose to break the law.” These are astonishing generalizations that dehumanize and devalue the lives of an entire group of people. The mothers and fathers of people who use drugs would no doubt disagree about the value of their children’s lives.
Last year, University of Maryland-College Park passed a referendum asking students if they would be more inclined to call emergency services during an alcohol or other drug related emergency if the campus adapted a Good Samaritan policy. Ninety-three percent of over 3,000 students who voted said they would. It is time that Maryland starts appreciating the irreplaceable value of a life by implementing a comprehensive Good Samaritan policy.

Irina Alexander is a policy intern at the Drug Policy Alliance and sits on the Students for Sensible Drug Policy board of directors.
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