By Taylor Knopf
Jordan Dean, 27, and his friend lay passed out in a car parked at a Food Lion in Vance County when a grocery store employee called 911. Law enforcement and EMS arrived. And Dean left the scene in a police car.
He was arrested and is facing charges after being the victim of a heroin overdose, according to his mother, Tricia Cotton Dean, who told the story to NC Health News. Health professionals in Vance and Franklin Counties have reported similar situations of overdose then arrest to NC Health News.
A so-called Good Samaritan Law, passed in 2013, offers legal protections from drug-related misdemeanors or felonies for people who call 911 to report an overdose. Since people often use drugs together, the fear of legal repercussions could deter many from calling for help when someone else is overdosing.
But apparently, not every law enforcement agency in the state has abided by the spirit of the law, continuing to charge people like Dean for overdosing.
A bill moving through the General Assembly this session would amend the original Good Samaritan Law and clarify that victims of an overdose receive the same legal immunity as the person who called for help.
“This appears to everyone to make sense,” said primary bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Charlotte).
Under the current law, there was confusion over whether the person who overdosed also receives immunity if they are not the person who made the call, Jackson said.
Sen. Jim Davis (R-Franklin) co-sponsored the bill and said, “we’re just more interested in saving lives than prosecuting people for drug offenses.”
Jackson would also like to broaden the immunity to include a group of people who might be present when someone overdoses and needs medical attention.
“So like, if you have a group of friends, we don’t necessarily want to deter someone from making the phone call because of the fear of their friends being arrested,” Jackson said.
“We couldn’t exactly find the right language to do that on the Senate side.”
The bill passed through the Senate on Tuesday and now goes to the House of Representatives, where Jackson said lawmakers could tackle that issue in the bill.
Both Jackson and Davis said they have confidence that the bill will easily pass through the House, saying there’s no shortage of people interested in working on opioid-related bills.
Virgil Hayes, with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), said he’s thankful to see some clarifications being made to the Good Samaritan Law, but NCHRC would like to see more.
“We would like to see full expanded immunity to everyone at the scene of the overdose. That is our primary push,” Hayes said.
He would also like methamphetamine included under the Good Samaritan Law protections.
Hayes said that law enforcement representatives are uneasy about these additional changes and that his organization is working to meet with them.
Lack of awareness
Even if the law is amended for clarity, there is still a lack of education about the Good Samaritan Law.
After her son was arrested in Vance County, Dean said a number of people she encountered through the process hadn’t heard of the Good Samaritan Law or didn’t understand the full extent of its protections.[sponsor]
This is an issue outside of North Carolina as well. At least 40 states have passed some version of the Good Samaritan Law, but “many pass without education efforts,” according to The Drug Policy Alliance.
A survey of 245 Washington state police officers found that only 16 percent had heard of the Good Samaritan Law there, and only 7 percent knew who the law protected. The University of Washington study also surveyed 335 people who visited a syringe exchange, and only about one-third were aware of the Good Samaritan Law.
“We do need to do something to increase awareness about this because kids are dying,” Sen. Jackson said.
While everyone agrees that lack of awareness and understanding of the Good Samaritan Law is a problem, he said that he’s unsure about the solution at the moment. Money for an educational campaign could become a big debate, he said.
“I think more money needs to be invested in education and really promoting that,” Hayes said.
NCHRC provides overdose and prevention trainings to law enforcement around the state and always includes information on the Good Samaritan Law, Hayes said. But not all law enforcement departments accept the coalition’s training offer.
“But it’s not enough, we only have so many bodies,” he said. “And so really, I think that is an important step.”