‘Good Samaritan’ Law Should Save Lives

Back in the early 70s, my first job in college was working for a South San Francisco nonprofit substance abuse intervention program, Damien House (now closed). It was a live-in position and I was a “Jack of all trades,” supervising a drop-in center for local teens on the first floor, answering calls from runaways and responding to crisis calls on suspected drug overdoses.

I was reminded of my work dealing with people who had bad experiences with drugs when I read about the new California “Good Samaritan Overdose Protection Law,” which was one of many to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “California’s 911 Good Samaritan law provides limited protections from arrest and prosecution for low-level drug law violations at the scene of an overdose, including possession of small amounts of drugs and drug paraphernalia.”

I answered all kinds of crisis calls while on duty at Damien House. By far the most difficult calls came from people who had a friend they thought might be overdosing from drugs. For these calls, my task was to quickly assess the situation, and go to the house if I thought it was a life-threatening situation and the caller would not call 911 for help. Most of the young people we were dealing with were afraid that the police would arrive and arrest them for drug possession if they called 911. During my year on the job, I only had to go out on one call, and I will always remember it.

The call I received came from a young Daly City woman who said her roommate had taken “a lot of acid” (LSD) and maybe some other pills. He was not answering her questions anymore and she was having trouble waking him up. I asked a few basic questions and tried to get her to call 911. Usually, we could get a caller to let us call an ambulance for them if we told them that it was a life-threatening situation. In this case, she was afraid because there were drugs in the house. My job was then to drive to the house, reassess the situation and either drive the person to the emergency room or call 911 myself. I was only 18 years old at the time but had received first-aid training, specifically geared toward responding to drug overdoses. I was also working as a volunteer for the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic and at concerts for Bill Graham’s Rock Medicine. By most standards of the day, I had already seen plenty of action and was a veteran.

I grabbed a new volunteer to go with me—we only went out in pairs—and I was at the house 10 minutes later. I was shown to the bedroom, where a young man was semi-conscious and turning blue. It was not a good situation. Using my basic first-aid training, I tried to get him to respond. His pulse was slow, his breathing shallow and irregular. His color was bluish around the mouth. He suddenly had a seizure. Then he became still and breathing stopped. I started CPR. At this point, there was no driving the victim to the hospital. I told the roommates to call 911 and to get their drugs and throw them out because the police would arrive for an ambulance call like this. 

The young man was lucky: Responders saved him from an overdose of barbiturates and LSD. His roommates weren’t so lucky; they were arrested for drug possession. When police arrived I had a heck of a time explaining what I was doing at the house. I finally convinced an officer that I was not just another roommate! If not for this type of community services, many more young people would have died at home or at rock concerts from drug overdoses.

Today, nonprofits do not provide “door-to-door” services for suspected drug overdoses, because of the obvious danger of walking into a house with drugs. Weapons often accompanied drug use and there was paranoia associated with the overdose. But people are still scared to call 911 when under the influence of drugs.

Drug overdose fatalities are the No. 1 cause of accidental injury-related death in California and many other states. Studies have shown that there are usually other people present with a person when they overdose, but the witnesses are afraid to call emergency services because they might be arrested for drug possession. California is now the 10th state to pass a “911 Good Samaritan Law” that would protect people from being arrested for small quantities of drugs. Those who sell drugs are not protected under the new law, nor are those driving under the influence of drugs.

This is one new law that might actually save lives.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.

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