Advocates Commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31st as Drug Overdose Now #1 Cause of Accidental Death

Press Release August 27, 2013
Media Contact

<p>Contact: Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Tommy McDonald 510-229-5215</p>

The Drug Policy Alliance will join dozens of organizations in the U.S. and abroad commemorating International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31. The day honors and remembers those who have lost their lives to an overdose. The occasion is also an opportunity to educate policymakers and the public about a variety of proven solutions, such as “911 Good Samaritan” laws and improved access to naloxone, the life-saving opiate overdose reversal medication.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2010. There were 38,329 drug overdose deaths in the United States, 22,134 (60%) of which were related to pharmaceuticals. Among people 25-64 years old, drug overdose caused more deaths than motor vehicle traffic crashes. The highest death rates were among people 45-49 years of age.

DPA spearheaded the passage of the nation’s first 911 Good Samaritan law in New Mexico in 2007. Since then, our momentum has only grown, as 13 more states and the District of Columbia have passed such laws. Ten states passed 911 Good Samaritan laws in 2012 and 2013 alone – California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont – as well as the District of Columbia. Good Samaritan laws provide limited immunity from arrest or prosecution for low-level drug law violations when summoning emergency medical assistance to the scene of a suspected drug overdose.

In New Jersey, DPA spearheaded a successful bill that was passed by the state legislature in 2012, but vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. After nearly a year of escalating public and political pressure, Christie made a rare reversal and signed the 911 Good Samaritan provision into law with a signing ceremony in May 2013 featuring the singer Jon Bon Jovi, whose daughter benefitted from New York’s 911 Good Samaritan law when she suffered a drug overdose last year.

For years, DPA has also advocated for the broad distribution of naloxone, an inexpensive and easily administered overdose antidote for opiate drugs. Approved by the FDA since 1971, naloxone is non-addictive and nontoxic – and research shows that it can cut overdose death rates by 50 percent. Eleven states – Virginia, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, North Carolina and Washington State, as well as the District of Columbia – have enacted laws providing legal protection from civil or criminal liability for medical professionals and laypeople who prescribe or administer naloxone to those at risk for drug overdose death.

“Good Samaritan and naloxone access laws are important first steps in tackling the overdose problem,” said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “But much more is needed, such as integrating overdose prevention into existing drug education programs.”

In spite of recent successes, Ralston cautions against complacency, particularly in light of a recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) revealing a staggering increase in the number of ‘first-time’ heroin users over recent years – likely related to the increase in prescription opioid abuse. According to the report, nearly 180,000 people tried heroin for the first time in 2011, up from around 90,000 in 2006.

“We need to be learning the lessons of our failed ‘crack down and get tough’ approach to reduce prescription drug abuse and make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes with this growing number of heroin users,” Ralston said. She encourages states to implement stronger, evidence-based drug treatment and mental health services in concert with any law enforcement approach to drug problems.

“My son is a survivor of overdose. Thankfully a Good Samaritan took him to the hospital after his friends left him unconscious for fear of police involvement. It is frustrating and maddening that so many other families are dealing with this tragic and avoidable loss,” said Gretchen Burns Bergman, lead organizer of the national Moms United to End the War on Drugs campaign, which will hold events in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Orlando, Sarasota, and Delaware on August 31st. 

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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