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Feature: Legislatures Take Up "Good Samaritan" Overdose Bills in Bid to Reduce Deaths

Last year, in suburban Washington, DC, 19-year-old Alicia Lannes overdosed on heroin. The girl was in her bedroom and text messaging her boyfriend and heroin supplier, Skylar Schnippel, when he realized something was wrong. But when he realized Lannes was in trouble, he didn't call 911 or her parents. Instead, he called some friends and asked them to check up on her. At 4:00am, they peered through her window, saw her unconscious, and called paramedics. Shortly after 5:00am, her father, Greg Lannes, was awakened by paramedics pounding on his front door.

"We found my daughter lying next to her bed," Lannes told the Washington Post. "She had passed away. She had gone through a lot in her little life."
Dr. Reardon and son Danny
Six years earlier, Washington dentist Daniel Reardon went through something similar. His son, Danny, 19, a freshman at the University of Maryland, passed out after a night of drinking. Fraternity members laid him on a sofa, took his pulse, and took turns watching him. But young Reardon quit breathing at some point during the night, and by the time fraternity members called an ambulance at 3:30am, Reardon was brain dead. He died six days later without gaining consciousness.

In both cases, people who might have saved the lives of the victims with fast action hesitated to call for help, largely out of fear of legal repercussions. Whether it was using heroin or underage consumption of alcohol, friends as well as the victims themselves faced the possibility of prosecution for drinking or drug use.

Yesterday, Daniel Reardon testified before a Maryland General Assembly committee to urge members to pass a bill that might have saved his son's life. The House Judiciary Committee was holding hearings on HB 1273, a Good Samaritan overdose bill, which would protect overdose victims and the people seeking help for them from facing criminal prosecution.

Although New Mexico is the only state to have passed such legislation, numerous college and universities have instituted similar policies. "There are about 90 schools across the country that have these medical emergency amnesties," said Stacia Cosner, a University of Maryland senior and member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), which has endorsed the Maryland legislation. "About one third are public; the rest are private, usually small colleges."

Unfortunately, the University of Maryland isn't one of them -- yet. "We have been working on this here for a couple of years, and there has been some progress, but there is nothing formally adopted yet," said Cosner.

It is working at George Washington University in Washington, said Cosner, citing ongoing research there. "Since they instituted the program, 911 medical emergency calls have gone way up," she said.

The movement is spreading beyond the college campus now. This year, besides Maryland, legislatures in at least seven other states -- Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington -- are considering Good Samaritan overdose laws. (The Washington state effort died earlier this month after failing to move out of committee.)

There is good reason for such laws. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 22,000 people died of drug overdoses (both licit and illicit) nationwide in 2005, the last year for which statistics are available, making ODs second only to traffic accidents as a cause of death for young people. Only about 15% of fatal overdoses result in immediate death, meaning quick action could save lives.

"It should never be a crime to call 911", said Naomi Long, director of the Drug Policy Alliance DC and Maryland Project, which is leading the charge for the bill in Annapolis. "This bill is about saving lives without compromising public safety. In these hard economic times, Maryland should focus resources on saving lives not arresting Good Samaritans."

The Good Samaritan bill "is about giving countless Marylanders a second chance at life," said Del. Kris Valderrama, the bill's sponsor. "We should pass laws that send the message that saving lives is our first priority."

"We need these laws to protect lives and to help people in confusing situations make the right decision to call for help if necessary," said Amber Langston, SSDP eastern regional outreach director. "People may hesitate to call 911 or not call at all out of fear of punishment, and even a few moments of hesitation can cost someone's life. If the goals of our drug policies are to save lives, then enacting Good Samaritan laws is good drug policy."

As a student organization, SSDP is particularly concerned about young people, said Langston. "This is an issue that particularly affects young people, who are generally less experienced and more fearful of retribution," she argued.

"We know that people are dying of overdoses, and these are preventable, unnecessary deaths," said DPA's Long. "We need to be creating the kind of situation where people immediately call for help. The bills in Maryland and elsewhere are an attempt to remove the perceived threat of prosecution from people who want to do the right thing, but are in a difficult situation."

Whether the Maryland bill passes this year remains to be seen, but the hearings have been an opportunity to open lawmakers' eyes to the problem, said Long. "We have been able to educate lawmakers about how the fear of arrest and punishment makes people hesitate to call 911, we have some really powerful stories, but the bottom line is that the bill still faces an uphill fight," she said.

"I think it's great that some state legislatures are trying to catch up with a good harm reduction program," said Hilary McQuie, western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "People frequently cite the fear of retribution as the main reason they didn't seek help. If these laws can get passed and accepted so they change people's behavior around what happens with an overdose situation, this could really make a difference in people's lives. It could save their lives."

But passing a Good Samaritan bill is just the beginning, said McQuie. "There is a lag between changes in the law and changes in 911 calls," she said. "It takes a little time for people to build trust in the system. You also have to educate police and the people around drug users that the law exists, and there is no funding for that. These efforts are wonderful, but they need more resources to be effectively implemented."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Good Sam OD

What kind of people are we that only one state has such legislation and that one has only just passed it? The Drug War is evil.

Lawsuit time for states that don't fall in line with this?

If I were a parent, I would be devastated to have a child die from a drug overdose only because the people with her were afraid to call 911. Some sick assholes (groups like ONDCP) support these unnecessary deaths because the most important thing is not saving lives but to teach kids that drugs are bad.

Senate Beating the Drug War Drums

Over the past couple of weeks the congress has been holding hearings in various committees about the Mexican border mess. Most all have been nothing but police and military people beating the drug war drums for MORE MORE MORE... MORE DRUG WAR!

On Thursday the Senate Homeland Security Committee will hold one of the most important of these hearings. Again it will be police and military people terrorizing the senators, for the Obama Administration's escalation and militarization plan. They will hear no dissenting opinions because they have invited no dissenting opinions to testify.

We need to let the senators know that we do not want more drug war. We need to contact the senate Homeland Security Committee NOW and tell them, in no uncertain terms NO MORE DRUG WAR!

I wrote to them a couple of weeks ago. You can write them too. Its not too late. Here is a page with contact information for the committee. It has fax numbers and I recommend using the fax numbers. Emails will go into a file in a computer. Hard mail is too late and would sit in a security bin at the post office for three months. FAX goes right into the office TODAY.

United States Senate Homeland Security Committee contact page. (includes my letter to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee. Feel free to use any of it as you please.)

If your senator is not on the committee then write to the committee itself as a concerned citizen. Share the FAX number and information with your friends and family. The more we flood their FAX lines the more they will get the idea that American do not want this war.

With more troops going to Afghanistan and troops still in Iraq how long will it be before President Obama ask for a draft to send troops to the Mexican border?






The same ols song

I have seen this so many times it makes me sick.I used to have someone go down in my place almost daily for a while back in the early 70's.Americans were a cinch to drop as they were used to buying bags of dope and ours came in a #5 capsule.I used to hit them with saline and it snapped them right out of it but you still had to keep an eye on them.I finally got hold of some adrenaline and that worked much better.They should allow naloxone or some other antagonist to be sold or picked up at the needle exchange as most addicts can use a needle as well or better than most medical practitioners.There is really no reason for anyone to die unless the drug is unknown or the user has no idea what to do.Calling an ambulance should be the first thing a person does if they don't know how to help themselves.I thought the days of the drive by body dump at the emergency room were things of the past.I have to read up on the way things are done in the USA to bring myself back to the days when we were scared to call proper medical help.I never lost a single person and I had dozens,probably over a hundred people drop in my house.We always got them going again.I did see a lot of people die in situations where they just had no clue what to do and didn't ask for help until it was too late.This was almost always out of fear of the consequences of reporting the OD.The sad thing is that most OD's happen all in a bunch because of a batch of uncut dope.That,or young people who have no idea what they're doing.This alone should be enough to end the way we deal with opiate drugs.One death by overdose is one death too many.To allow a climate where it is too dangerous for a person to risk calling an ambulance makes no sense at all.This is murder by insanity.

Please should be jailed for

Please should be jailed for NOT CALLING 911!! People watching someone die on a drug overdose disgusts me and how can they live with themselves knowing you held someones lives in your own hands.

They could call 911 and leave the door unlocked for the authorities and leave the house.

I dont think people who deny someone in distress should get a free ticket to stay out of jail!!

nice to know

it is nice to know that the girl that watch as my brother died will walk away with nothing more then her own bad feelings. and me, my mom, and his daughter have to spend the rest of our lifes alone

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