Saving OD Victims May be Illegal in Your State

By Dirk Hanson 05/09/11

Lawmakers argue over how to do the right thing for people who do the wrong thing.

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Good Samaritans at risk.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

Your friend is lying on the carpet, turning blue. She’s not breathing. Earlier, she got drunk and took a handful of Oxys. You’re not a doctor. There are drugs all over the room. As Keanu Reeves put it in Speed: What…would…you…do?

All too often, the answer has been: Nothing. Or worse. There are reported cases of people being dumped in the woods, rather than being taken to the hospital, due to fears of prosecution. As for rapid medical treatment of an obvious emergency, the best an addict in overdose, or a young drinker suffering from alcohol poisoning, can often hope for is a quick, anonymous drop-off at the nearest emergency room. And in many cases, that is too little, too late.

Illinois, Texas, and other states are now designing legislation that would forbid the prosecution of anyone who attempts to help an OD victim. Opponents fear such bills will let drug users off the hook. But Senator Ira I. Silverstein (D--Chicago) said, “we do not want to lose someone we love who made a bad decision that caused them to fear seeking help."

The Associated Press reports that a last-minute amendment to the Illinois bill, designed to appeal to drug hardliners, may mean that caregivers would be granted immunity only if the amount of heroin or other illegal substances on the premises amounts to three grams or less. Some lawmakers seem to believe that good Samaritans should stop and weigh all available drugs on site before deciding whether to save the life of an overdose victim. Similar arguments and bill-making are happening in other states, too. Nebraska, Washington, and Missouri are also in the process of crafting or revising so-called “Good Samaritan” laws in order to grant immunity to both victims and helpers in cases of ODs due to illegal drugs.

Retired Chicago Police Captain John Roberts, who lost a son to a drug overdose, told Zachary Colman of AP: “The best thing we can do is save the person’s life, and sort everything out later, as it comes.”

In a similar vein, Texas recently passed a law designed to give minors a “free pass” from prosecution for alcohol possession if they present themselves at an emergency room because they drank too much alcohol, or if they deliver someone else to the emergency room, conscious or otherwise. The mother of a Texas boy who died from an alcohol overdose at college said that her son “would be alive today if his peers had not been afraid to get him help for fear of getting themselves in trouble.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]