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New protection when reporting overdoses

August 01, 2011
Fear of prosecution will no longer be a barrier to New Yorkers considering whether to seek medical help for themselves or someone else suffering from a drug or alcohol overdose.

The Good Samaritan Law (S.4454-b/ A.2063-c) was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on July 20 to encourage people to call 911 for help or go to the hospital if they are experiencing or see someone else in distress from an overdose without having to fear possible legal repercussions for being in possession of a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia.

Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, a sponsor of the legislation, said he believes the law will save many lives. "The number one reason people don't call for emergency services or go to a hospital in the event of an overdose is fear of getting arrested," he said.

Studies have shown many people do not call for help when they see someone overdosing for fear of getting arrested themselves. A 2006 study by Cornell University showed students are more likely to report an overdose if the "judicial consequences," such as being arrested or fined, were not taken into account.

"This bill doesn't condone drug use, but rather, acknowledges the importance of helping a victim and spurring a response from witnesses that may help protect the well-being of another person," said Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, the Senate bill sponsor.

The law does not protect people dealing drugs or those who could be charged for the highest-quantity possession offenses.

"I have received compelling letters from parents whose children have died from a drug overdose or are struggling with drug addiction urging me to approve this bill. These letters and other information provided to me has convinced me that this new law will save lives," Cuomo wrote in his approval message.

Still, Cuomo acknowledges that if lives are to be saved, police officers must be trained to recognize when a person is truly in need of medical care because of an overdose and to make quick decisions.

New Mexico, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington have all enacted similar legislation aimed at encouraging people to call for help when confronted with an overdose.

The Medical Society of the State of New York supported the legislation. "I think it would make it much easier for victims of a drug overdose or someone who witnesses an overdose to be more inclined to call 911," said Pat Clancy, vice president for public health and education at the organization.

According to the federal government, drug overdose death rates have risen steadily in the United States since the 1970s, with rates increasing five-fold since 1990. In 2007, 27,658 people died in the country from drug overdoses. In some states, including New York, drug overdoses are the number one cause of accidental deaths, even ahead of motor vehicle fatalities.

According to the bill justification, "In New York, overdose is the No. 1 cause of accidental death, exceeding traffic fatalities. In 2008, over 1,350 people died from accidental drug overdoses in New York state, an increase of more than 60 percent from 1999."

Some colleges are implementing comparable plans for alcohol consumption on their campuses. Cornell adopted the Medical Amnesty Protocol in 2003 as a way to promote the reporting of alcohol poisoning and intoxication. Under this protocol, students who call to report an alcohol-related emergency will not be subject to judicial action if they violated specific provisions of the school's code of conduct.

In the years after the protocol was enacted, surveys conducted by the university show students did not worry about getting themselves or their friends in trouble nearly as much. After the protocol was put into place, fewer students at Cornell cited fear of judicial action as the reason they did not call when confronted with an alcohol-related emergency.

Although Gottfried said he does not believe the new law will have any measurable effect on the amount of illegal drug use in New York, he says it will help save lives for those who do overdose.

"If someone doesn't get prosecuted for drug possession, that's nowhere near as important as saving a life," he said. "We certainly want to end drug and alcohol abuse but not by having overdose victims die. The whole point of ending drug and alcohol abuse is to protect life, not destroy it."

Voices of Community Activists & Leaders-New York, a group that helps low-income people suffering from drug use and HIV/AIDS, is among organizations that supported the legislation. Hiawatha Collins, a VOCAL-New York board member, agrees with Gottfried on the purpose of the law. "No one should go to jail for trying to save a life," Collins said. "New York is making it clear that saving lives needs to be our priority, not locking people up."

The bill did not see much opposition in either house of the Legislature. It was passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 140 to 2 in the Assembly. It will go into effect in September.

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