Guest columnist: Focus in case of overdose should be safety, not punishment

Dec. 16, 2012 @ 10:28 PM

Seven years ago, Durham resident Chad Sanders lost his sister, Shelly, to drug overdose. Shelly had been using drugs with a friend in her dorm room when she became unresponsive. Her friend, recently released from jail on parole, did not call 911 for fear that he could be arrested for drug possession. Shelly didn’t make it through the night. Unfortunately, Shelly’s story is far too common. Drug overdose deaths have surpassed automobile deaths as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. In North Carolina, antiquated laws and practices lead to more than 1,000 preventable overdose deaths each year. It’s time we do something about it.

A person who is experiencing a drug overdose has one to three hours before the overdose proves fatal. An adequate amount of time exists for friends or family to call 911 to get this person help. Additionally, administering naloxone, a non-abusable medicine used to reverse overdose, is safe and effective even when administered by people without medical training.

Current North Carolina laws do not support these life-saving practices. Overdose bystanders who call 911 can be arrested for suspicion of drug possession or other drug-related crimes. Not surprisingly, fear of the police is the number one reason cited for failing to call 911 during an overdose.

No one should be arrested for attempting to save a friend’s life.

Distribution of naloxone is legal in North Carolina with a prescription. However, physicians co-prescribing the antidote with opioid pain relievers to patients may be wary of doing so for fear that it will be used on someone other than the person they have examined, violating a state law that prohibits “third-party prescriptions.”

Drug users should be able to be prescribed naloxone to protect themselves and their loved ones.

So, what can we do? We can advocate for enacting 911 Good Samaritan laws that not only protect the individual calling 911 from criminal liability, but also the person experiencing the overdose. The focus in the case of an overdose should not be to punish people, but to keep them safe and bring them back to health. We can also push for a law that will allow medical professionals to prescribe naloxone to any person, making it available to all who are at high risk for overdose. Lastly, we need to endorse a law that provides immunity to individuals who possess, distribute, or administer naloxone.

Other states have enacted such laws over the past two years, most recently Florida, where strong bipartisan support was expressed. Washington was one of the first states to enact a 911 Good Samaritan law, in 2010. One year later, 88 percent of opiate users in the state reported they would be more likely to call 911 during future overdoses as a result of awareness of the new legislation. Several states have amended their laws to educate physicians and lay people on the use of naloxone and to protect physicians who prescribe the drug, so that it does not expose physicians to a greater risk of medical liability. Shelly’s brother Chad supports expanding access to naloxone, relating it to a similar, but over-the-counter drug: “If someone is allergic to bee stings, they have easy access to an EpiPen, but if people overdose, the medicine is not [readily] available … because of stigma … that’s not a good excuse.”

Passing a 911 Good Samaritan law and increasing access to naloxone are not only effective, they require no additional funding. Detective Gary Martin from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, a supporter of these laws, reported that they “… don’t cost anything. 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.”

Most members in the community have moved past the “war on drugs” mentality of the 1980s that engendered stigma and judgment to more of a public health perspective. Yet policies remain in place that do not work and continue to harm people. As Chad can attest, anyone’s life can be affected by drug use: “it is likely that someone in your family or at least someone you know is struggling with the disease of addiction.” It is therefore up to all of us to advocate for better policies that will keep people alive to get help.

Call your legislators today to express your concern about the high rate of overdose deaths in North Carolina. Let them know how important it is for them to support 911 Good Samaritan and naloxone access legislation in the 2013 legislative session.

Allison Glasser is a master’s of public health student at UNC Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.