In June 2011, New York State passed a law that aims to reduce the prevalence of avoidable drug-related deaths by exempting individuals from being arrested for possession of drugs in the case of an overdose. New York is the fourth state in America to pass such laws. Under the new law, individuals who call for assistance for a person who is overdosing do not have to fear prosecution for being involved in the overdose. This has been a significant challenge for law enforcement and medical personnel. However, the Good Samaritan law does not offer immunity from arrest for individuals who have outstanding warrants, probation or parole violations. Violations relating to drug manufacture or delivery or crimes other than drug possession are also not exempted.
Research shows that the majority of drug overdoses happen in the presence of others and death as a result of an overdose can be prevented if medical assistance is sought immediately. Sadly, in more than half of the cases of death from overdose, others do not call for assistance. Instead, they try to prevent death through ineffective methods such as using other drugs, slapping and placing them in a cold bath.
In the past, many people avoided getting assistance for a person who is overdosing or experiencing adverse health problems when they have taken a drug for fear of being arrested. Law enforcement would often take people into custody who had called for assistance and even jailed those who had overdosed and charged them with possession of an illegal substance. Anecdotal evidence suggests than many deaths from overdose could have easily been avoided if there had not been the fear of being arrested and charged looming over them during the time of overdose. Many stories from drug users and health workers show that easily preventable deaths could have been stopped with immediate medical supervision. Some individuals who have called paramedics for themselves have been arrested and charged with possession and punished to jail time as a result of them overdosing. Sadly, many of these users are not given access to drug counseling or rehabilitation as part of their prison sentence.
The Good Samaritan Law makes it clear that saving a persons’ life is the priority regardless of who they are or what they have taken. Substance abuse is an illness that has many risks associated with it and getting help in an adverse situation is the first thing someone should do. However, an overdose is not just a risk for people who take illicit substances and many overdoses occur from prescription medication or alcohol. Young people are often at risk of alcohol poisoning as a result of harmful drinking and failing to get help in the case of an overdose from alcohol can lead to death.
Laws protecting those who call for assistance and those who are overdosing represent a significant change to the policy trends of the United States towards drugs. Previously, New York was known for its staunch zero tolerance laws towards drugs and drug-related crimes. Strict laws were imposed on those who were arrested in conjunction with drugs and mandatory sentencing was introduced. This tough-on-crime policy has done little to reduce the prevalence of drugs within the city, and does not focus on rehabilitation for drug users. Instead, drug users have avoided contact with health workers and law enforcement. Overdoses as a result of drug use has steadily increased since the beginning of the zero tolerance policy was applied in the mid 1990’s.
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