By Rose Hoban
At least 4,243 people in North Carolina died from overdoses in 2022.
Mary O’Donnell knows the pain of having a loved one die in such a situation. She’s been fighting for years to get overdose numbers down.
In 2017, O’Donnell’s 17-year-old son, Sean, had been drinking with some friends at a quarry near his Chatham County home. His friends, afraid of being caught for underaged drinking, left him behind when he passed out near the quarry’s edge. At some point, Sean — alone and impaired — fell into the quarry and drowned.
Mary O’Donnell thinks that a way to bring down the number of deaths related to alcohol or substance use is to make it easier to call for help. That’s what she’s been advocating for since Sean died.
“Young people do not want to risk getting arrested,” O’Donnell said. “That gets put on their record, and it impacts their ability to get into college, get jobs, etc.”
O’Donnell has been walking the halls of the Legislative Building, talking to lawmakers about Senate Bill 458, which would strengthen the state’s Good Samaritan law. The bill would increase legal protections for people who have overdosed, along with protecting the people who are around them.
“If you’re at a scene and somebody makes the call, then we’ve got to provide them protection,” O’Donnell said.
Currently, only the person who has overdosed and the person who calls for help are shielded from most prosecutions for substance possession. Sometimes even those people find themselves in legal jeopardy. The new bill would provide protection for everyone at a scene from arrest and from prosecution for nonviolent offenses.
“The North Carolina law is one of the most limited and complex in our country,” O’Donnell told reporters at a news conference at the Legislative Building last week when the bill was introduced.
Deadlier street drugs prompt shifts
“Too many people are dying needless overdose deaths,” said Sen. Bobby Hanig, (R-Powell’s Point), a main sponsor of the bill. “North Carolina’s Good Samaritan Law was passed in 2013, was done with good intention, but we’ve learned since that there’s some limits or limiting effects to it.”
For one thing, Hanig said, the drug supply has changed. Fentanyl and other potent opioids and tranquilizers are being added more frequently to street drugs.
At least 3,000 of last year’s fatal overdose victims — more than two-thirds of all the overdose deaths — had fentanyl in their bodies, according to data from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Once fentanyl is in the mix, it’s much easier to overdose. Help needs to come fast — that might be a first responder carrying naloxone, a quick-acting drug that blocks opioid receptors.
While the current Good Samaritan law provides some protection for the person overdosing and the person who makes the call, others on the scene could still be liable for prosecution even if they’re rendering aid. The prospect of getting in trouble, especially for people on the scene who might be impaired, can lead to inaction.
Too often, no one calls.
“We need to be able to give a simple message especially to our youth that if an overdose death is happening, we should immediately call 911. Without fear of prosecution,” Hanig said. “We need a simple Good Samaritan Law with broad coverage.”
SB 458 would:
- Give everyone at the scene of an overdose protection from arrest and prosecution for nonviolent offenses
- Give immunity for people who possess fentanyl without any carve-outs for certain substances and amounts.
- Make the protections apply for students calling security for an overdose on campus.
Meanwhile this year, the state Senate passed a bill that would toughen penalties for someone who provides the fentanyl that leads to an overdose. The so-called Death by Distribution bill would strengthen a current law to allow prosecutors to charge someone with second-degree murder if they sell drugs to someone who then dies of an overdose. That bill has not been voted on yet in the House of Representatives.
Advocates say such bills dissuade people who use drugs together from calling when there’s an overdose because often they’ve sold drugs to one another, often to support their own habits.
“They’re really trying to get the big drug dealers with ‘death by distribution,’” O’Donnell said. “It is highly unlikely the big drug dealer is going to be at the scene of a party where people are sharing drugs.”
O’Donnell said supporters of death by distribution laws and supporters of Good Samaritan laws need to work together to find the middle ground.
“We wanted to introduce — and it was Senator Hanig’s perspective as well — the strongest law that would send a clear message that we don’t want anything to stop someone from calling 911. That includes exemption from death by distribution charges,” said Lee Storrow, who works with the Community Education Group.
Storrow, a North Carolinian, has been working to strengthen harm reduction practices throughout Appalachia for the past several years. Harm reduction is an approach to addressing substance use that aims to reduce the negative effects of drug use by providing sterile injection and drug use supplies, testing for hepatitis C and HIV, providing an opioid overdose reversal drug called naloxone and other resources to people in active substance use. The idea is that someone might not be ready to stop using at a given moment, but they might be ready someday.
“I mean, people need to be alive in order to get their recovery,” said Chandler Picot, who also spoke at the news conference.
Picot has firsthand experience with overdoses, including one where his mother called police when she found him unresponsive in his room. He experienced others that left him near death while he was still using. With the support of his sister, he’s no longer using any substances and works as a peer support counselor who assists other substance users who are trying to get help.
“People need to be able to feel comfortable to call and to share their experience and not feel like they’re gonna get in trouble for trying to save someone’s life,” Picot said said.