Calling 911 Should Not Get You Arrested

Bucks County rep's Harrisburg bill could prevent drug overdose deaths.

Of all the dubious side effects of America’s futile and increasingly unpopular War on Drugs (and there are lots of them), few are more egregious than the fate suffered by the thousands of users who die every year from an overdose because they or the people they are using with are too afraid of police harassment or arrest to call for help.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, thanks to a surge in prescription narcotics use, drug overdose now outranks car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in adults. Almost 40,000 Americans a year—including around 1,700 Pennsylvanians—are victims of overdose-related fatalities, many of which could have been prevented if someone had simply picked up the phone and dialed 911.

Instead, data shows that barely half of all overdoses result in a call for medical assistance despite the fact that most occur in the company of others. For many addicts, experience has shown that calling police, even with the best of intentions, is more likely to lead to a trip to jail than a merit badge for good citizenship. So they do what comes naturally under the circumstances: They run.

One Pennsylvania lawmaker is hoping to change that and give more addicts a second shot at life, and with any luck, recovery. Earlier this year State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican from Bucks County whose son is a recovering heroin addict, penned a letter to colleagues seeking their support for a measure that would grant temporary immunity for certain drug crimes to users who report an overdose to medical authorities.

“Drug deaths are increasing nationwide and Pennsylvania is no exception. Sadly all of these deaths are preventable,” he wrote. “Calling 911 should not be a crime. I believe that saving lives is more important than punishing behavior.”

Within two months, DiGirolamo’s bill had picked up nearly 50 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. The bipartisan legislation, House Bill 2489—which was introduced in June—would amend current drug law to ensure that any person who “in good faith” calls for medical assistance for themselves or someone else in the event of a drug overdose is “barred from being arrested, charged, prosecuted or convicted for committing a prohibited act”—such as possessing drugs or drug paraphernalia—when authorities arrive.

Jose Benitez, director of Prevention Point Philly, which provides addiction outreach services including syringe exchange, says his group has been following the bill’s progress and believes such a law would undoubtedly save lives here.

“Many of our participants express a reluctance to call 911 for fear of prosecution. Hopefully this will provide a safety net to those who really need to call 911 for help. The bill is a humane step towards providing the life-saving assistance people need.”

Pennsylvania wouldn’t be the first state to pass such a law, but it would be in the vanguard. Only seven other states have so-called “911 Good Samaritan laws” on the books. In 2007, New Mexico broke ground with the nation’s first, followed three years later by Washington State. Since then, New York, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois and Florida have followed suit. In New Jersey, the “Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act” has been making its way through the state legislature and is expected to come up for a vote this fall. Pennsylvania’s version is currently sitting in the House Judiciary Committee.

Supporters of Good Samaritan laws—including the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of State Legislatures—claim, rightfully, that they represent a common-sense approach to a serious public health issue. But not everyone is convinced. In 2010, after California’s legislature passed a bill that would grant immunity for three minor crimes to drug users who report overdoses, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger shamelessly vetoed the measure on the grounds that it “fail[ed] to address problematic, high-risk drug use and behavior.” Apparently no one told Arnie that wasn’t its intent.

No one has ever claimed Good Samaritan laws will reduce drug use; but they do appear to be reducing drug-related deaths. And for the police, doctors, families and friends who are forced to deal directly with the fallout of addiction, not to mention for the addicts themselves, that’s a pretty solid definition of success. In states that have such laws on the books, research has found that addicts are now less likely to avoid calling 911 or rely on half-measures like a cold shower when one of their comrades falls out. A 2011 study by the University of Washington found that 88 percent of opiate users polled by outreach workers said they would be more likely to call for assistance during future overdoses in light of that state’s Good Samaritan law. Meanwhile, police in Washington State (many of whom already overlooked such crimes) say they are less likely to pursue charges.

But not all laws are created equally. Pennsylvania’s proposal, for instance, lacks a provision on the use of  NaltrexoneNaloxone, a powerful opioid antagonist sold under the brand name Narcan that can reverse a full-blown overdose if administered in time. In February the CDC reported that making the drug more readily available could save thousands of lives each year. A number of municipalities already have overdose prevention programs that distribute Naltrexone Naloxone kits to addicts and their families, and New York and Washington’s Good Samaritan laws lift restrictions on its use by non-medical personnel. A comprehensive overdose prevention program in Pennsylvania needs to include such a component.

What’s more, DiGirolamo’s bill does not include a component for educating addicts on the law, which could undermine its usefulness. But under the circumstances, perfection is a luxury; while it might not be perfect, Pennsylvania’s Good Samaritan bill is a step in the right direction and will keep more of our citizens from dying needlessly on the street when help is just a phone call away.