RALEIGH — Good Samaritans who summon medical help for drug overdose victims will be given protection from certain criminal charges under legislation approved unanimously Wednesday by the N.C. Senate.
The House passed the bill last week by a vote of 102-11.
This bill will help cut down on the pandemic of deaths in this state that are linked to prescription drug overdoses, said Senate sponsor Austin Allran, a Republican from Hickory.
Deaths from drug overdoses have grown from fewer than 500 in 1999 to more than 1,100 in 2011, the latest figures reported by the state Department of Health and Human Services. More than half of overdose deaths are from prescription pain medications, typically opioids such as OxyContin or Vicodin, which Allran said have become easily available throughout the state.
Public health officials expect the new law to encourage faster reporting of overdose cases, giving first responders a better shot at arriving in time to provide lifesaving medical assistance. Kay Sanford, a drug abuse specialist who spoke at the recent N.C. Overdose Prevention Summit, said 60 percent of deaths from drug overdoses occur before medical help arrives, partly due to bystanders fear of criminal charges.
The new law will also limit prosecution on certain types of charges for overdose victims themselves and for bystanders who administer prescription antidote medication in an emergency. Additionally, medical providers who supply friends and family members of drug abusers with antidote medication, typically Naloxone, will be exempt from liability.
Allran points out that the law does not relieve bystanders or victims of overdose of prosecution from major charges, such as felony possession of controlled substances or trafficking in drugs.
The proposal to limit immunity in these cases came out of the state Task Force on Child Fatalities, which found that prescription drug deaths are the second-most-common cause of death in people under 18, just behind vehicle crashes. But youth are not the only victims, Allran said.
Deaths from prescription drug abuse happen to the elderly, middle-aged people, white, black, rich, and poor, he said. Its equal opportunity.
A companion bill to the Good Samaritan/Naloxone Access legislation proposes to shorten the length of time from seven to three days that pharmacists must report to the states database dispensing controlled substances. That bill is set to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Allran said.