New York state last week became the largest state in the nation to adopt a “Good Samaritan” law to fight overdose. The law bars arrests and prosecution for personal possession of drugs, paraphernalia or underage drinking when someone calls for help to save the life of an overdose victim.
Overdose—now the leading cause of accidental death in New York and the number one injury-related killer of adults 35-54—is responsible for some 28,000 annual deaths nationally.
Most overdoses occur in the presence of other people and take several hours to cause death. But research finds that in up to half of cases, no one calls for help. 911 calls are also often delayed as witnesses try ineffective methods of reviving people such as slapping them or dousing them with cold water. The most common reason given for not calling 911 or for delaying help-seeking is fear of arrest and prosecution.
“Overall [the new law] really sends a very strong message to law enforcement and the general public that saving lives is much more important than putting people into the criminal justice system,” says Dr. Sharon Stancliff, medical director for the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), an organization that advocates for measures to improve the health and lives of drug users, whether or not they desire abstinence.