'Good Samaritan' Laws and Drug-Overdose Victims

Heroin was the deadliest drug in America in 2014. John Rensten / Getty Images

Chicago has the highest number of heroin-related emergency-room visits in major metropolitan areas, followed by New York City, Boston, and Detroit, according to a study out this week. The Roosevelt University researchers who conducted the research say medical care for heroin overdoses could be improved by “good Samaritan” laws, which currently exist in only two states.

As it now stands in most states, people who dial 911, drop a friend off at a hospital, or otherwise try to get care for someone in the midst of a drug overdose are subject to prosecution for use, possession, or distribution. No national figures exist for how often callers are arrested, but users are attuned to the stories that show up in the media with some regularity, says Meghan Ralston of the Drug Policy Alliance, pointing to a recent case in which an overdosing woman and a man who called an ambulance for her were both arrested. “That sends a chilling, disturbing message to all people who will one day witness an overdose,” Ralston says. “It says, ‘Don’t call 911 because you and the victim will be arrested.’ ”

Justin Pearlman knows that reality all too well. A long-time heroin user who had overdosed three times in the past, he shot up when he was alone one night four years ago. Instead of getting a typical high, though, he realized he was in trouble when he became dizzy and nauseous, his heart raced, and breathing slowed. He managed to dial 911 before falling unconscious. Paramedics rescued him but police found Pearlman’s stash and later charged him with possession. While serving six months in prison, he received no drug counseling.

If he were to relapse again, “I don’t think I would ever call 911 on myself or another person,” said Pearlman, now 30 and clean for two years. “I wouldn’t want to be prosecuted … it’s so horrible to go to jail.”

He said other drug users fear arrest as well, so much so that they would forgo dialing 911 for friends in the midst of medical emergencies, a truth that has sadly been borne out in cases around the country. “People who use drugs tend to be highly aware that they can be arrested for drug possession at any time, under any circumstance,” Ralston agrees.

Two men in the Chicago suburbs didn’t want to call police for an overdosing friend and instead left him on a park bench, where he was found dead. Another man injected his pal with heroin and then left him in a bedroom after he started overdosing. After discovering the friend had died, the man helped dump his body in an alley. A woman in Washington stood by and did nothing for a 16-year-old pal even as the teen vomited, wet her pants, and suffered a seizure and eventually died after a night of partying. Two Utah residents dumped a friend’s body outdoors after refusing to call for help as she overdosed.

While there may be a variety of reasons why a person doesn’t call for medical attention while witnessing an overdose, research shows that people consistently list “fear of police involvement/fear of arrest” as the leading reason for failing to seek immediate help for someone thought to be overdosing, according to Ralston.

In an effort to encourage people to seek help instead of leaving friends to die, Washington state recently joined New Mexico in granting limited immunity from prosecution on possession charges to drug users summoning help for an overdose. California, New York, and Massachusetts are considering similar legislation. “These laws are designed to do no more than get that panicking person to the phone as quickly as possible and try to save a life,” says Ralston, whose organization is working to get more good-Samaritan laws passed.

Not everyone supports these laws. “Nobody wants to appear ‘soft on crime,’ ” Ralston says. For instance, Illinois considered a bill this year that would have prevented information obtained from a 911 call reporting an overdose from being used as a basis for drug charges, but it was defeated.

“You’re granting immunity to drug dealers,” said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a former narcotics and gang prosecutor who opposed the law as overly broad. “This won’t be protecting the people it’s meant to protect.”

But Pearlman’s mother, Lea Minalga, who went back to school and became a drug abuse counselor after her son became an addict, says the bill would have saved lives and she will push to have it revived next year. “If kids knew there was a safe haven, they would call for their friends,” she said.

The Roosevelt University researchers fear that states will be slow to act on such legislation. “When the 18- to 19-year-olds who live in wealthy areas start dying, you’re going to see a change in the public’s perception and legislators’ willingness to implement these laws,” said Kathleen Kane-Willis, one of the lead researchers. “Unfortunately, for this to happen, more people are going to have to die.”