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Harm Reduction: Washington State 911 Good Samaritan Law to Prevent ODs Now in Effect

A law that provides some legal immunity for people who report a drug overdose in Washington state is now in effect, having kicked in on June 10. That makes Washington the second state to enact a "911 Good Samaritan Law." New Mexico was the first in 2007.

Under the measure, if someone overdoses and someone else seeks assistance, that person cannot be prosecuted for drug possession, nor can the person overdosing. Good Samaritans who manufactured or sold drugs could, however, be charged with those offenses.

The measure is aimed at reducing drug overdoses by removing the fear of arrest as an impediment to seeking medical help. According to the state Department of Health, there were 820 fatal drug overdoses in the state in 2006, more than double the 403 in 1999.

The bill also allows people to use the opioid agonist naloxone, which counteracts the effects of opiate overdoses, if it is used to help prevent an overdose.

Washington is the first state this year to pass a 911 Good Samaritan bill, but it may not be the last. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island are considering similar measures.

Supporters of the new law held a press conference June 5 to tout its benefits. "In 2008, there were 794 drug overdose deaths in Washington state," said Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, a drug overdose researcher from the University of Washington. "These overdoses do not need to be fatal. Death often takes several hours to occur," and people are often present. He said more information on the law is available at http://www.stopoverdose.org.

"We're here today to encourage people who don't work in hospitals to help saves lives," Attorney General Rob McKenna said. "More people are dying now from prescription drug overdoses (than traffic accidents) and yet fewer people are aware of it," McKenna said. He said drug overdoses are a hidden problem because they aren't as visible as other problems.

Sen. Rosa Franklin, who worked to pass the bill, said she worked as a nurse before becoming a legislator and wanted to address a problem she saw and read about. She said this bill will save lives. "We can no longer... put our heads in the sand and say that drug overdose is not happening."

Alison Holcomb of the ACLU of Washington said drug overdoses wouldn't happen in an ideal world, and this law wouldn't be necessary. She said people do drugs to cope, find acceptance or escape. "We can continue to condemn such people as morally deviant and treat them as criminals," but, she said, that doesn't work. She said this law is an important step and a compromise agreement.

"My son, a bright, creative, compassionate and funny kid, began using prescription opiates... during his senior year of high school," John Gahagan said. Just weeks after graduation, his son died of a drug overdose. "The 911 Good Samaritan Law will save lives," he said, adding that his son was alone at the time of his overdose, but he knows parents of other teens who could have been saved. "This law will only be effective if there is awareness of it... Call 911 to save a life," he said.

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

I am very happy to see people using the harm reduction model. It makes me very happy. If more states would just get on the bandwagon, this would be a better world for it. I for one live in Nebraska and started a needle exchange but the Nebraska territory is so conservative that it seems dangerous to me to help people. I am sure in the coming years people will start turning around to see the benefit of needle exchanges and naloxone.

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