D.C. Law Encourages Calling 911 in Drug Overdose Cases; Some Drug and Alcohol Law Violations Not a Crime When Help is Sought
D.C. Part of National Momentum to Fight Overdose Deaths with 911 Good Samaritan Laws and Increased Naloxone Access
In a recent memorandum, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier has instructed her police force to observe protections from arrest and charge granted under a D.C. law designed to encourage residents to seek immediate medical assistance for a person experiencing an overdose. The Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Amendment Act of 2012 (#A19-564), which was passed by the D.C. Council in 2012 and took effect on March 19, 2013, provides limited legal protection from arrest, charge and prosecution for those who witness or experience a drug overdose and summon medical assistance.
Advocates and community service providers who work directly with populations at greatest risk of life threatening overdose and other drug-related health harms applauded Chief Lanier’s instructions to police officers as an affirmation by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) that fear of arrest and criminalization can serve as a strong deterrent against calling 911 in life threatening situations that involve unlawful drug or alcohol use.
“A small amount of drugs or underage alcohol use should never stand in the way of someone picking up the phone and getting help for an overdose victim,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Metropolitan Police Department’s position that it won’t arrest people who are protected by the Good Samaritan law will help reassure people who witness a drug or alcohol overdose to get help right away.”
“A fatal drug overdose is usually classified as a preventable death – which means we all have an opportunity to save a life. If someone is overdosing from drugs or alcohol, no one should hesitate to take action and call 911,” said Cathy Lanier, Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department. “This law provides limited immunity to ensure someone makes that call.”
Many overdose victims are in the presence of others and do not die until several hours after they have taken a drug, meaning that there is both time and opportunity to summon medical assistance. Fear of arrest and prosecution often prevents people who are in a position to help from calling 911. Fifteen states (California, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Washington) have enacted Good Samaritan laws for preventing fatal drug overdoses. Good Samaritan legislation is currently pending in an additional 15 states (Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin).
“Bread for the City is glad to see the MPD take a strong stand to enforce the Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Law. We see first-hand the importance of harm reduction efforts through our needle exchange program and the overdose kits we hand out to clients. This new law is an example of working together for a healthier city,” said Dr. Randi Abramson, Medical Clinic Director with Bread for the City.
“HIPS is grateful to MPD for reaffirming that we can work together as a community to save lives by removing the threat of arrest for those who might otherwise fear seeking medical attention when a family member or friend overdoses. We look forward to working with MPD and our partners to help everyone in the community know about this life saving new law that puts families and life first,” said Cyndee Clay, executive director with HIPS.
“This is a giant step in the right direction for MPD as well for substance users. These are the kind of policy changes that make START proud to be working with MPD,” said Ron Daniels, Program Director with START at Westminster.
The Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Amendment Act of 2012 (#A19-564) specifies that:
“Even as District officials and community advocates work to advance public awareness of the protections granted under the Good Samaritan law, more work lies ahead to improve the wellbeing of residents who use drugs and need health services,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “Expanding access to naloxone, a medication that reverses heroin and opioid overdoses, is another step D.C. lawmakers and officials should take to save and improve lives in the District.”
Nationally, drug overdose rates have increased more than five times since 1990, and increased more than 150 percent between 2000 and 2010. In recent years, cocaine has been the lead cause of overdose death in D.C., followed by heroin and other opiates. District of Columbia Medical Examiner data indicate that African American residents are at greatest risk of experiencing a fatal overdose.