Law seeks to curb overdose deaths

By Evan Marczynski

People who overdose on drugs, as well as those who are with someone overdosing, can now seek medical help without fear of arrest for drug possession.

The passage last month of Senate Bill 5516, also known as the 911 Good Samaritan Law, makes Washington the second state in the nation to provide some legal immunity to those who overdose on drugs.

A 2007 report from the Washington State Department of Health found that drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the state. In 2008, 794 residents died from overdosing on drugs, according to a June 7 press release from the state attorney general’s office.

Washington is one of only 16 U.S. states where more people die every year from drug overdoses than from traffic accidents.

Dr. Emily Gibson, director of Western’s Student Health Center, said Whatcom County leads the state with the highest drug overdose rate. The problem is also all too common on Western’s campus.

“We’re looking at two to three cases a month,” Gibson said.

Most of those cases involve intentional overdosing rather than accidental. The intentional overdose cases are usually people attempting suicide, Gibson said. The new law does have limits. It only grants immunity to people who possess drugs, not people who manufacture or sell them. Also, a person overdosing who calls for medical help can still be arrested if they are found committing a separate crime, have outstanding warrants or are in violation of probation or parole.
In addition to giving legal protection to those who overdose, the law increases the availability of a drug called naloxone. This is used to counter the effects of overdoses from prescription narcotics such as oxycodone.

Doctors in Washington state can now prescribe naloxone. State residents are allowed to give it to someone suffering from a prescription-drug related overdose.

Naloxone essentially acts as an antidote to the effects of an overdose on prescription painkillers, said Meghan Ralston, an overdose prevention specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization based in New York that advocates for the reform of current drug laws.

The health department report found that prescription narcotics are abused far more than other illicit drugs like cocaine or heroin.

Ralston said overdose protection laws are one of the most effective ways to save lives. They can be implemented easily and without extra cost to taxpayers, she said.

“Overdose has reached epidemic proportions,” Ralston said. “The problem is staggering.”

In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 38,000 people nationwide died from drug overdose.

Elva Giddings, director of Western’s Prevention and Wellness Services, said many people are afraid to call 911 for help in an overdose situation because they are worried police will discover they are doing something illegal.

Students may not be fully aware of the dangers of mixing different types of drugs or mixing drugs and alcohol, she said.

Giddings obviously does not condone illegal drug use, but she said if a student decides to use drugs they should at least do so with a friend who remains sober and can get medical help if necessary.

“Often the people who have overdosed have been alone,” she said. “They’re just not thinking about what they’re doing.”

The text of the new law cited research that found the most significant barrier to lowering the death rate from drug overdoses is the fear that people have of being arrested for drug possession if they seek help in emergency overdose situations.

In 2006, a Puyallup teenager died from an Ecstasy overdose while attending a New Year’s Eve party with friends who repeatedly ignored signs that the teen required medical attention. A friend who supplied the teen with the drug refused to call 911 when it became apparent help was needed. The friend was later convicted of controlled substance homicide.

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