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On October 1, 2012, Florida became the newest state to enact 911 Good Samaritan legislation in an effort to curb statewide fatalities from drug overdose. Good Samaritan laws grant immunity from drug possession or paraphernalia charges to witnesses to an overdose who call 911 for emergency medical services. The law states, “A person acting in good faith who seeks medical assistance for an individual experiencing a drug-related overdose may not be charged, prosecuted, or penalized pursuant to this chapter for possession of a controlled substance if the evidence for possession of a controlled substance was obtained as a result of the person’s seeking medical assistance.”

The law was passed none too soon for Florida, a state with one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the country. In 2010, 98 of the top 100 doctors dispensing oxycodone nationwide were located in Florida, and the state dispensed more oxycodone than all other states combined.

The impetus to pass 911 Good Samaritan laws in Florida came from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. “Death from overdose is the most frequent type of call that a homicide detective investigates,” explains Gary Martin, a homicide detective with Palm Beach County Sheriff. “In 2010 alone we lost 297 people to overdose in our county, more people than died from motor vehicle accidents, suicide and homicide.”

As overdose deaths continued to rise in Palm Beach County, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and his fellow law enforcement officers created the Overdose Suppression Project with Gary Martin named as Coordinator.

“We got together and realized that what law enforcement had been doing wasn’t working,” explains Martin. “We’d been going to the death scenes, documenting that someone had died from an overdose, and moving on to the next one. But with the Overdose Suppression Project, we started looking into where the drugs were coming from or what doctors were overrepresented in the deaths of their patients. We checked for commonalities in cases and created a profile of the typical subject in an overdose death. Our data revealed that in 66% of overdose cases, someone was present who could render aid, but didn’t call 911. And it was often because they were afraid of law enforcement.”

During the time he served with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Detective Martin also worked as Associate Dean for Student Life at Lynn University in Boca, Florida. Lynn University had an amnesty policy similar to Good Samaritan laws for students who called for help in the case alcohol or drug overdose.

“When I was working on the Overdose Suppression Project, I thought about our amnesty policy at Lynn,” says Detective Martin. “Our research showed that people are hesitant to call for help because they don’t want to get in trouble. About 100 schools across the nation have amnesty policies for students, so I started thinking about implementing one on a larger scale in Florida. I did some research and found that a couple other states had passed 911 Good Samaritan laws, so we started to push for one in Florida.”

The first year the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office advocated for 911 Good Samaritan laws in the Florida legislature, it didn’t pass. “We experienced some political resistance at first,” explains Detective Martin. “Even some in law enforcement were against it, but once we explained that the amnesty only applied to drug charges, not violent crime or more serious violations, and that it would help save lives across the state, people started supporting it…We were also able to show from our data in Palm Beach, that officers made an arrest in only 1% of overdose situations. Since we weren’t really arresting people anyways, the law just validates what police are already doing.”

The law passed in April 2012 with broad bipartisan support and only three ‘Nay’ votes. Best of all, the legislation required no additional funding.

“[Good Samaritan laws] don’t cost anything,” explains Detective Martin. “They may even save money because they mean incarcerating fewer people. Every life saved is one less autopsy, one less law enforcement investigation that the state has to pay for.”

Since the law passed, Detective Martin continues to speak out on the dangers of drug overdose. “Overdose is a silent epidemic,” he says. “I talk to people about the dangers of combining drugs – because data says that 85% of people who die from overdose had more than one drug in their system…people who naively mix drugs, even small quantities, and don’t realize how they react against one another are at great risk…also people going through abstinence through detox or probation, if they relapse back to the same level of use, they are more likely to overdose because their tolerance levels have diminished. We had one guy overdose and die on the way home from jail. His girlfriend picked him up and wanted to celebrate with drugs. He died before he got home.”

911 Good Samaritan laws have passed in several states, including Illinois, Washington, Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Mexico and Colorado. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently vetoed the bill, which had passed the N.J. legislature.

“I’d like to explain the law better to [Gov. Christie],” says Martin. “These laws are cost effective because they save investigative resources in the long run…The fact is that when most people witness an overdose, they’ll try all kinds of bizarre, dangerous ways to revive a person, sometimes based off things they saw on TV. We want them to call 911 and Good Samaritan laws remove the fear of calling for help in most cases…Addiction can happen to anyone – your brother, daughter, sister, son…if we can save one life, it’s worth it.”  

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is planning to advocate for 911 Good Samaritan laws in North Carolina. To get involved, contact NCHRC at www.nchrc.org.

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