The push is on in Raleigh to overhaul the state's Good Samaritan law, which protects from prosecution people who report a drug overdose to medical authorities. The state passed a limited Good Samaritan bill in 2013, but the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition calls it "currently one of the weakest in the country."The current Good Samaritan law is unclear on whether its protective provisions apply to the person actually suffering the overdose, and as a result, people like Jordan Dean end up being arrested for suffering a heroin overdose. Dean, 27, and a buddy were both passed out in a car in a grocery store parking lot, an employee called it in, and although both EMS and police came to the scene, Dean ended up in the back of a squad car on the way to jail.
As North Carolina Health News reported, his case is not the only one. The state-level health media outlet cited similar cases of overdoses followed by arrests in Vance and Franklin counties.
Groups such as the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) and the North Carolina AIDS Action Network (NCAAN) are now getting behind an effort to strengthen the law with House Bill 852. The bill specifies that immunity from prosecution applies to the overdose victim as well as the person who reports the overdose.
Similar legislation passed the Senate in 2019, but failed to get through the House.
HB 852 also extends that immunity to include all drug possession offenses. Under the current law, people who overdose and are in possession of more than one gram of heroin or cocaine can still be charged with drug possession. And it includes a broader range of substances, including most significantly, fentanyl, that would be subject to those same protections.
"Our [current] law is actually one of the most limited in the country," said NCAAN executive director Lee Storrow, who, along with members of the Department of Health and Human Services opioid overdose prevention team, is helping lead the push for the bill. "When the Good Samaritan Law was enacted, our drug supply looked very different," he added. "Right now the main case of drug overdose in North Carolina is fentanyl -- but possession of fentanyl is not protected under our Good Samaritan Law, so it's a real barrier for people calling 911."
Another provision in the bill applies those same protections to overdose calls involving underage drinking.
The two groups joined with family members of overdose victims for a press conference and rally outside the General Assembly on Tuesday to call on lawmakers to save lives by advancing the bill.
"If people fear that they're still going to be arrested, the idea that they're protected from prosecution doesn't necessarily feel all that helpful," said Lee Storrow, head of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network.
Families who have suffered overdose deaths also spoke out.
"There can't be any question when people are together and someone overdoses of whether or not they should dial 911," said Randy Abbott, who lost his 24-year-old daughter to a drug overdose in 2015, when her friends panicked instead of seeking help.
"We know they panicked, and we know the things that happened when they panicked, like getting stuff out of the house, putting it in her car, lots of different things that the detectives were able to figure out," Abbott said. "But they didn't dial 911."
"As a nurse practitioner that works in addiction medicine and who lost my younger brother to overdose, I felt called to come to the General Assembly to support HB 852. This bill would save countless lives," said Charlotte resident Elisa Edgerton.
NCHRC and the other advocates at the Tuesday press conference are working to make it so. After the media event, they headed inside to lobby members of the House Judiciary Committee.