Drug policy reform advocates announced earlier this week that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has given his blessing for a Good Samaritan law that would allow drug overdose victims to call 911 without any legal repercussions.
Resistance to Good Samaritan laws often comes from U.S. lawmakers who support the War on Drugs, which is proof that the “war” is a failure, according to director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in New Jersey, Roseanne Scotti. “The fact that we prioritize prosecution over saving a life” epitomizes that failure, she said.
The U.S. imprisons millions each year for nonviolent drug offenses, with a disproportionate number being poor and minority persons. Drug offenses result in a person living with a criminal record, which can make it difficult to land a job and often render a person ineligible to obtain child custody, voting rights, business loans, trade licensing, student aid, public housing and other public assistance programs.
According to the DPA, accidental overdose deaths are now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., which is why overdose prevention laws are seen as a crucial piece of legislation. The DPA estimates that there were 752 deaths from drug overdoses in New Jersey alone in 2009.
Scotti says many of those deaths would have been prevented if emergency medical assistance had been sought out because drug users typically don’t use drugs alone. But since many people using drugs or alcohol illegally fear they will be arrested and prosecuted for drug and alcohol violations if they call 911, overdose victims rarely receive the emergency medical care they need.
This is why the DPA has argued the best way to encourage overdose witnesses to get help is to legally exempt them from arrest and prosecution. Most often the law protects the caller and the overdose victim from arrest and prosecution for drug possession, possession of paraphernalia and being under the influence.
Christie’s announcement earlier this week was a welcome surprise for many drug policy reform advocates, since the New Jersey governor has historically been opposed to similar legislation, citing fears the law would protect drug dealers.
Current Good Samaritan laws do not protect a person from selling or trafficking drugs, or driving under the influence, but New Jersey lawmakers specifically added this language to the bill to address Christie’s concerns.
On Monday, the legislation overwhelmingly passed the New Jersey Senate and House — now the only thing needed to turn the legislation into law is Gov. Christie’s signature. If he signs the bill, New Jersey will become the 11th state to have a Good Samaritan law that extends protection for those using drugs or alcohol illegally.
“The chance of surviving an overdose, like that of surviving a heart attack, depends greatly on how fast one receives medical assistance,” writes the DPA. “Witnesses to heart attacks rarely think twice about calling 911, but witnesses to an overdose often hesitate to call for help or, in many cases, simply don’t make the call. In fact, research confirms the most common reason people cite for not calling 911 is fear of police involvement.”
While the state of Wisconsin doesn’t have a Good Samaritan law like New Jersey’s yet, the city of Madison — home to legendary party school University of Wisconsin-Madison — has enacted a similar policy to protect students from alcohol overdose.
One of those Madison students to benefit is 22-year-old Caitlin. During one Halloween weekend in Madison when she was 19, Caitlin says excitement about being with her friends resulted in her drinking too much.
She says the last thing she remembers is leaving her friend’s house to go to the city’s annual Freakfest Festival. “My friends noticed I was too drunk,” she says, adding that one of her fellow underage friends — who also had been drinking — decided to walk her home.
“I fell over a couple times [walking home] and he got really nervous. He saw some cops and had them come over.” Caitlin says the cops ended up calling an ambulance and she was taken to a local hospital for a few hours where she was given fluids.
Caitlin blew .32 for blood alcohol content (BAC) at the hospital that night — way more than the .08 BAC legal levels for driving — but didn’t get an underage drinking ticket thanks to the Good Samaritan law.
“Going to the hospital was embarrassing enough as it is,” Caitlin said. “I don’t know if my friend would have sent me there if they knew they would have gotten in trouble.”
While Caitlin initially was worried upon realizing she had been taken to the hospital, she says she was glad her friends made the decision to send her there. “I would have been in a lot worse shape if I hadn’t gotten those fluids.”
Caitlin says her positive experience has led her to get help for her friends when they are in a similar situation. “When I’m drunk I’m not afraid to get help for a friend,” she said.
Other people who have benefited from the legislation include rocker Jon Bon Jovi’s daughter, who overdosed on heroin in her New York college dorm room.
Randy Brown is a committee member and doctor treating addiction in Wisconsin. He said surveys found that in states that have Good Samaritan legislation, 88 percent of users were aware of the law and were more likely to call 911 as a result: “Getting to the right care prevents death, so for deaths like this to continue to happen is really a tragedy.”