RALEIGH — Good Samaritans who call for medical help for drug overdose victims could receive immunity from certain criminal charges under a bill introduced in the N.C. Senate.
The legislation, known as the Good Samaritan bill, also allows doctors or pharmacists to “prescribe, dispense or distribute” antidote medication to friends and family of drug users who fear a deadly overdose.
The law will make it easier for “bystanders,” often friends or family members, to react swiftly at the first signs of a serious overdose, said Kay Sanford, a public health and drug abuse specialist who spoke at this week’s N.C. Overdose Prevention Summit in Raleigh.
“Sixty percent of people who die from overdose are already dead by the time first responders get there,” Sanford said.
The call for help is often delayed because callers fear they will be charged with drug possession or something else if they summon authorities, Sanford said.
The Good Samaritan/Naloxone Access Act would give more discretion to law enforcement personnel in how they deal with drug-related crimes involving someone who sought emergency help for a friend potentially dying from an overdose, said Corey Davis, an attorney with the Network for Public Health Law, a national coalition that works to improve public health laws and is backing the proposal.
“This is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Davis said. “But it’s a response to the unintended consequences of laws that cause people to die when they otherwise could be saved.”
Deaths from unintentional poisoning in North Carolina went from fewer than 500 in 1999 to 1,140 in 2011, with more than 90 percent caused by overdoses of drugs or medications, according to the latest figures from the state Department of Health and Human Services. More than half of overdose deaths were caused by prescription pain medication, typically opioids such as Oxycontin or Vicodin.
At least half of the deaths could have been prevented with a quick medical response, Sanford said.
The legislation also would allow doctors and pharmacists to prescribe an effective antidote medication for opioids, known as naloxone, to “third parties,” primarily someone who could administer the drug to another person who is seriously ill or dying from an overdose. It also would permit doctors to issue “standing orders,” so that the naloxone could be administered in an emergency situation without fear of prosecution.
Eight states have enacted similar laws, Davis said.
Bingham said he became a sponsor of the bill after hearing overdose statistics from the state’s Child Fatality Task Force. He said that information, plus the experiences of his daughter, a hospital physician who has treated overdose patients, convinced him the proposal was sound.
“I feel very good about this bill,” he said.
Eddie Caldwell, general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, said his organization is looking over the bill.
“So far we haven’t taken a position on it,” Caldwell said Tuesday. “We have some concerns, because there are not other laws on the books that allow someone reporting a crime to be absolved of any criminal responsibility. But this issue is unique.”
Caldwell said most parents would probably support the idea.
“If it was your teenager and the choice was calling 911 and giving him a chance to live, or not calling them and having him maybe die but still having the option of prosecuting the person who gave him drugs, I think most people would choose to have someone make that call,” he said.