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.