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

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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.

At least one more state, Pennsylvania, has an overdose bill pending in its legislature. In August, New Jersey's legislature passed a Good Samaritan Law, but Governor Chris Christie vetoed it in early October, saying the legislation was too narrowly focused on encouraging reporting of overdoses, rather than deterring drug abuse or combatting violence.

In several states, district attorneys, police organizations, and tough-on-crime elected officials have opposed 911 Good Samaritan Bills, concerned that the laws condone risky behavior and limit the powers of law enforcement officials. But as overdose deaths have risen, bill passage has gotten easier.

However, for this legislation to prevent deaths, those who use drugs must know that the law exists. And at least in New York, this is where the bill has fallen short.

"There is more that we can do," said Gabriel Sayegh, the director of the New York policy office of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for drug policy reform. He's been working with community groups and government agencies to educate the public about the bill. "And a significant part of that 'more' is actually fairly easy." He suggests public service announcements, as well as coordinated plans to educate law enforcement officers across the state.

"That is not going to solve the overdose crisis," he said, but it will prevent deaths.

The New York overdose bill passed with bipartisan support, and it was defended by Governor Andrew Cuomo. One of its weaknesses, though, is that it does not mandate that any one agency inform the public about it. Because of this, there is clear evidence that not only citizens but law enforcement officials are simply not aware of its existence. On October 5, Suffolk County police responded to a 911 call about an 18-year-old man who was overdosing. After they rescued him, they arrested and charged him with possession of a hypodermic instrument and criminal possession of a controlled substance, clearly violating the Good Samaritan law.

So far, Sayegh's group, in coordination with VOCAL-New York, has met with several agencies, including the state Department of Corrections and the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Following these meetings, both the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services and the state Department of Health began working to develop materials to educate the public.

The New York City Police Department, however, has refused to meet with Sayegh's coalition to discuss an implementation plan. Sayegh accused the department of creating and following its own agenda, regardless of the policy directives given by the governor and the legislature. The NYPD did not respond to several requests for comment.

"If we think about in the basic way of saving lives, of course they [city police officers] want the law implemented," said Sayegh. "I'm sure there are biased officers who say, 'Just let those drug users die.' But the majority, including [city police commissioner] Ray Kelly don't think that way. But the response to crime and drug use for years has been arrest, arrest, arrest. And it's difficult to change that."

Ideally Sayegh would like to see Kelly take the lead on the entire education campaign. "There could be no greater voice to help New Yorkers understand this than Ray Kelly doing public service announcements saying, 'I'm Ray Kelly. If you witness any overdose and report it, we're not going to bust your head for doing it.'"

***

Ward, the minister, lost not only her son but her brother, Moses "Butch" Ward Jr., to overdose. When Butch died at an apartment in Far Rockaway in 2002, he was 49 and had three kids. Ward says she is convinced that if someone had reported that he was in the midst of an overdose, her brother's death would have been prevented.

Ward's husband was the one who entered the apartment to identify his body. "When my husband came out, he had tears in his eyes," Ward said. "And he said, ''Lucille, whoever was in there with your brother, with Butch, they left him with a needle in his arm. So they had to run.' When he told me that, I had a nervous breakdown, crying. The only thing I could think of was -- why would people leave people in the house like that?"

At her church in Queens, Ward shares the pulpit with several other ministers, so she will likely not preach until 2013. Instead, she plans to shift her focus to pushing for the implementation of her state's overdose bill. "I'm getting tired of our babies ODing. I'm getting tired of our sisters ODing. And people leaving. Brothers and aunts and cousins. ... There's a lot of things not right. And I know that's what God got me for. He said, 'You got a big mouth, use your big mouth.'"

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

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