'Good Samaritan' Laws Could Help Overdose Victims—If Only People Knew They Existed

In New York and other states, drug users are supposed to be granted immunity when they call 911 to save their friends' lives. But the police and the public have yet to get the message.

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Lucille Ward, whose son died of an overdose, has been pushing the state of New York to fully implement its Good Samaritan law. (Julie Turkewitz)

When Lucille Ward, 60, a recently ordained minister who lives in Far Rockaway, Queens, prepared her first sermon this summer, she spent hours studying next to a simple wooden bookshelf, painted black and stocked with gospel CDs and books from her time at Bethel Bible Institute.

The bookshelf is a reminder of her past, a piece of furniture crafted by her son Maurice, a Mr. Fix-It type who died three years ago, at the age of 34. Ward's youngest daughter found Maurice dead from a drug overdose in his apartment on Halsey Street in Brooklyn, on an August day when the heat topped 100 degrees. "My daughter climbed up the fire escape," said Ward. "She kicked the window in. My son had been in the house for days. And with that heat, my son's body automatically exploded. And my daughter screamed. She said, 'Mom, I never seen that before. Maurice's body. Pieces all over.'"

To Ward, Maurice's death was devastating. To the rest of the world, though, he was just another casualty of an overdose epidemic quietly ripplingits way through the nation. In the U.S., drug deaths now exceed traffic fatalities, claiming 37,000 lives each year. The death toll has doubled in the last 10 years, and someone dies from an overdose of drugs-- either legal or illegal -- every 14 minutes. Some of these deaths occur in areas long associated with drug use, like the Bronx, where Ward grew up as the daughter of a soda delivery man. She is the oldest of seven children, nearly all of whom use or used drugs.

But other deaths are tearing holes in communities that for decades have stood as models of middle class America. Susan Roethel's daughter Megan died on May 19 in Huntington, New York, a bedroom community 32 miles from Ward's home in Queens. Huntington has a median household income of $110,000. The population is 93 percent white. According to her mother, Megan was recruited by universities that included Princeton, Yale, and Dartmouth. She had become depressed and begun drinking, often mixing alcohol with Oxycontin, Oxycodone, and Vicodin. Then she began shooting heroin. She died weeks after turning 22.

Megan's story, rather than being a random tragedy in an otherwise idyllic place, is being repeated in similar Long Island communities. "We've lost 28 to drugs in Huntington from January to now," said Roethel. "In Brookhaven Township, they lost 43 from January to now." On Long Island overall last year, 345 people died from heroin or other opiates. In 2010, that number was 215.

But few parents in the area who've lost children to overdoses are talking about it. "People judge you, they think there is something wrong with how you raised your child if your child does heroin," said Roethel, who started the web site The Fallen on Long Island, a space dedicated to Megan and others like her. "When my daughter passed, I was not going to bury her and bury the reason why she died. I was not going to be embarrassed of my daughter."

Days before Roethel's interview, there was another fatality in a nearby town. A group of girls were getting high, she said, and one began to have a bad reaction. Afraid to call the police because they could get in trouble, the girls dumped their friend on her boyfriend's lawn. The girl died.

***

The nationwide rise in drug overdoses is fueled, at least in part, by eased access to prescription drugs that either cause deaths or serve as a gateway to illicit substance use. And it has compelled some legislators and drug policy reformers to take note. Many believe that thousands of deaths could be prevented if people who witnessed overdoses were simply encouraged to call emergency services.

Studies show that most deaths occur one to three hours after a drug user has ingested or injected, presenting witnesses with an opportunity to seek medical help. But only between 10 percent and 56 percent of people who witness an overdose call for assistance. Most hesitate because they fear arrest and drug charges.

As a result, some drug policy reformers are calling for the implementation of 911 Good Samaritan Laws, which provide immunity from drug possession charges to people who seek medical assistance in overdose situations. The immunity also covers the person suffering the overdose. These laws do not provide immunity from possession of large quantities of drugs.

In 2007, New Mexico became the first state to enact such legislation. Washington State followed in 2010. And since September 2011, seven more states -- New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Colorado, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Florida -- have followed suit. A law in California goes into effect this January.

Two other states have weaker 911 Good Samaritan-style laws on the books: Maryland and Alaska permit or require the court to consider it a mitigating factor when a person on trial has summoned emergency help for an overdose victim. However, neither state provides a defendant with immunity from charges.

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Julie Turkewitz is a New York-based journalist. She also writes for the New York Times.

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