Awareness of Good Samaritan Law Key to Preventing OD Deaths

Andrew Kitchenman | July 15, 2013 | Health Care
State campaign spreads word to schools, public health workers in attempt to make initiative more effective

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The state law protecting those who try to get help for overdose victims won’t be effective unless people know about the measure.

That’s why state officials have launched a public awareness campaign focused on the Overdose Prevention Act, also known as the Good Samaritan Law, which was signed by Gov. Chris Christie in May.

The law bars drug-possession arrests for both the person who overdosed and the person who called for help.

Campaign flyers feature the phrases “Save a Life! Don’t think twice! Call 911” and “NJ’s Good Samaritan Law protects people who seek help for victims of overdose.”

State Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez noted in a statement that many overdoses can be treated with swift medical intervention.

“In the vast majority of cases, a person is now immune from prosecution if they try to save someone from overdosing, even if they are using a drug themselves,” Velez said. “In many cases, people don’t report overdoses because they are afraid they will be arrested and charged with a crime. It’s critical that we get the word out. Too many lives are at risk.”

On July 2, Acting Attorney General John Hoffman announced a statewide directive to police and prosecutors listing the offenses for which the new law provides immunity, including “obtaining, possessing, using, being under the influence, or failing to make lawful disposition of any controlled dangerous substance.”

This directive may help overcome one of the largest public policy challenges in making such laws effective — making sure police officers know that they shouldn’t arrest those who make the 911 call.

Eighteen months after a similar law was passed in Washington State, only 16 percent of police officers were aware of the law and only 8 percent knew that immunity from arrest applied to both the overdose victim and the person who made the call.

Enforcement of such measures received national attention last year when Stephanie Bongiovi, the 19-year-old daughter of musician Jon Bon Jovi, was arrested in New York State following a heroin overdose. She was later released due to New York’s Good Samaritan law; her father joined Christie when he signed the law.

In the directive, Hoffman also said that other people with the person who called 911 and the person who overdosed shouldn’t be arrested.

The public awareness campaign was warmly received by Moorestown resident Susan Howland, a member of a network of family members of overdose victims who advocated for the law. The person who was with her brother Richard Howland during his fatal overdose buried his body in a yard, leading to a search that Susan Howland said traumatized family members.

“It just shook us to the core and none of it had to happen” if a Good Samaritan law had been in place, Howland said.

Howland said she hopes that both public health workers and law-enforcement officials spread the message to people who they know are at risk of heroin overdoses.

“If we could save one other person’s life, it would honor Richard, because he was a good man,” Howland said.

She said she planned to take some flyers about the law to local police departments.

“Whatever I could do, I would be happy to do to increase public awareness, because people need to know,” Howland said.

The law represented a rare case in which Christie reversed a position he had taken on a policy issue, following his veto of an earlier version of the bill.

Christie said he never opposed the concept behind the law and was concerned with certain provisions that were removed from the final version of the measure. But he also said that pleas from the family members of overdose victims and conversations with his wife Mary Pat Christie led to his support for the law.

State Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services officials are distributing the flyers through community programs, schools, colleges, drug treatment facilities, medical personnel and behavioral health professionals.

Christie “has sent a clear message that he wants to save lives and in most cases, forego prosecution of people who are present during an overdose situation,” Velez said. “I think this message will resonate throughout the community.”

In addition to its provisions preventing arrests for those calling 911, the law also provides immunity for those administering the heroin antidote naloxone to overdose victims.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization whose New Jersey chapter lobbied for the law, has had success in supporting similar measures in other states. The organization also promotes public awareness of the laws, including supporting August 31 as International Overdose Awareness Day.