If you happened to see someone injured or fighting for their life, what would be your first reaction? Presumably, we’d all call for help and seek medical assistance. But what if you and the victim were afraid to do so?

What if the very real fear of the law meant that an ambulance wasn’t called for? At a crucial time when a first responder is the difference between life and death, is it time that we look at the laws that may be failing those who are in harm’s way?

There’s been a worrying trend over the last few years. Overdose deaths in the UK, Canada and the US have been on the increase, so what can we do to ensure that we try and make provisions for these often preventable deaths?

In May 2017, the Canadian government received Royal Assent to make the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act a law. This simple measure ensures that anyone who calls for help in times of an overdose will not face repercussions. Prioritising public safety, the Act provides an exemption from charges of simple possession of a controlled substance for anyone who calls for emergency help for themselves or another person suffering an overdose. This also extends to anyone present at the scene when emergency help arrives.

Canada has an increasing problem with drug deaths. Recent figures released by the Public Health Agency of Canada suggest that almost 2,500 Canadians died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016. Canada’s Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott describes these deaths as “preventable”. This equates to a national death rate of 8.8 per 100,000 people. In British Columbia, in real terms, an average of 3.6 people die of a drug overdose every single day, around 935 lives lost in the BC province alone. 

The US faces an even greater crisis, as accidental drug overdoses have now become the leading cause of death among people aged 25 to 64. Estimates for 2016 indicate that more Americans died from drugs in this one year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War (the figure is estimated to be as high as 59,000-65,000).

High profile cases such as Jon Bon Jovi and his daughter Stephanie have kept the public debate of US drug laws alive. In what he describes as the worst moment of his life, the singer has been very open about the 2:00 am call from his daughter telling him from her hospital bed that she had overdosed on heroin. Since then, both have championed Good Samaritan laws across the US, and Jon joined Governor Chris Christie when he signed the bill in his home state of New Jersey.

Many US states have now followed suit and provide limited or full immunity from drug-related arrest or prosecution for people who seek help at an overdose scene. These states include: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

Beside offering help rather than punishment, Good Samaritan laws have additional implications. Currently, drug laws act as a preventive barrier to sensible public health models. In 2014, the UK Home Office released a report assessing global drug laws. The International Comparators report found that the harshness of drug laws does not impact drug use, but that punitive drug laws do place barriers around those who may wish to seek help. Good Samaritan laws, such as Canada’s, seeks to readdress the balance to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are no longer kept at arm’s length in these potentially fatal circumstances.

Good Samaritan laws formalise what many of us already know:fear of punishment and reprisal in times of life and death can only do harm. Canada’s Federal Health Minister, Jane Philpott, one of the Canadian MPs who took the lead in passing the Good Samaritan law, highlights that drug overdoses fit into a larger social narrative and are linked to poverty, homelessness, mental health and unresolved traumas. Minister Philpott added that drug overdoses may get worse before they get better. She emphasised that fundamentally, we require treatment without judgement.

There is still a long way to go. Donna May is a mother who lost her daughter Jac to the consequences of a stigmatised drug policy and now tirelessly works with mumsDU – Moms United and Mandated to Saving the lives of Drug Users. Donna knows from an all-too real perspective that good political intentions may not always go far enough:

“In essence, the Good Samaritan legislation provides only the narrowest of protections and does not provide immunity for those who take turns with friends in supplying the drugs. It does nothing of what it was intended to do which is encourage substance users to call for help when in the presence of an overdose.”

Virgin Unite, drug policy, good samaritan law

Donna goes on to call for more evidence and more dialogue with those who have seen first-hand what our drug laws can do in causing more harm.

“Good intentions without experience, and a generalized lack of practical knowledge, can and do cause considerable harm. It has proven especially costly in terms of lives unnecessarily lost when creating policy and legislation which results in the unintended consequence of numerous overdose deaths. These lives cannot be simply considered as collateral damage.”

Good Samaritan laws prove that we need to act, and that we need to address our stigmatised approach to drugs and treatment. With the lives of our loved ones on the line, our drug laws are actively fostering indecision in life and death situations. Good Samaritan laws are a step in the right direction to ensure our social health, and that mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters get to see their loved ones for another day. 

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