Point of View

Little-known law could prevent deaths

October 18, 2013 

North Carolina’s 911 Good Samaritan/Naloxone Access Law has been in effect since Gov. Pat McCrory signed it on April 9, 2013, but if you quizzed an average N.C. resident about it, odds are, the phrase “good Samaritan” would evoke only Biblical connotations and the word “Naloxone” would be meaningless. In all the political hullabaloo of the past year, why is it important that North Carolinians know and understand this particular piece of legislation?

The answer is in the numbers. In North Carolina, over 1,100 people die of an overdose every year, a figure that’s doubled just since 1999. Nationally, overdose rates are climbing steadily and overdose rivals or surpasses all other leading causes of accidental death. If you are between the ages of 35-54, some statistics suggest you are more likely to die of an overdose than a car accident. The overwhelming majority of these overdoses involve the use of legal prescription medications. Wherever and however you live, it is a fact that overdose is happening in your community.

Despite the breathtaking scope of the epidemic, there is nothing inevitable about this increase in overdose deaths. In fact, most of these deaths are highly preventable. More than half of drug overdoses occur in the presence of another person. Most fatal overdoses involve some form of opiates, and it takes time to die from opiate overdose, sometimes hours. A medicine exists (called Naloxone or Narcan) that safely and reliably reverses opiate overdoses. This medicine has existed for over 40 years, and can be easily administered by a lay person in an emergency, either via nasal spray or intramuscular injection.

Theoretically, this situational equation – an expanded window of time for action plus the presence of bystanders plus the existence of an effective antidote – should result in more opportunities for rescue. Instead, all too often, people die anyway – either because the people with them do not know enough to recognize that an overdose is occurring, or because they are too afraid of the likely legal repercussions to call for help. Fear of police involvement is the most frequently cited reason for not calling 911 during an overdose.

This is why laws like North Carolina’s 911 Good Samaritan/Naloxone Access Law are so vitally important. The provisions in the law effectively and realistically address all of these barriers to rescue. By providing reluctant bystanders at the scene of an overdose with limited immunity from criminal charges – including charges for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, drug paraphernalia or underage consumption of alcohol – the law removes the single most significant obstacle to calling for help. And by empowering doctors and other providers to make Naloxone widely available to people at risk of overdose across North Carolina, this law greatly increases the odds that the tools for survival will literally be on hand at the scene of an overdose.

These measures are not only logical, they’ve been proven to be effective. Good Samaritan laws were already in effect in over 10 other states before North Carolina passed our legislation. After a similar Good Samaritan law was passed in Washington state, 88 percent of people surveyed said they were more likely to call for help because of these legal protections. Additionally, recent studies have shown that increasing access to Naloxone can cut overdose rates almost by half. That means that this law, which costs the state nothing, has the potential to save about 550 needlessly-lost North Carolinian lives each year.

However we may feel about people who are at risk of overdose – a huge and diverse segment of the population that includes pain patients and addicts, teenagers and grandparents – we should all know and celebrate what this law does to protect them and their loved ones. The more we all know about the problem of overdose and how to address it, the more likely it becomes that each one of us could survive that fleeting moment – of carelessness or darkness, impaired judgment or poor decision-making – that can lead to overdose. So tell a neighbor. Save a life.

Loftin Wilson lives in Durham and works with the N. C. Harm Reduction Coalition to improve North Carolina’s public health.

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