On January 1 of this year, a new law went into effect for the state of California. This new law is known as the 911 Good Samaritan law. California is just one of eleven states that have such a law in place. New Mexico was the first state to introduce this type of law in 2007. The law essentially states that if there is someone who overdoes on a drug and another person assists by giving them reasonable medical attention, i.e. calling 911, taking them to the hospital, etc. then neither the victim nor the one who assisted them can be charged with possession of a small amount of drugs, drug paraphernalia, drugs for personal use, or for being under the influence of the drugs. State assemblyman, Tom Ammiano, who introduced the bill, stated that the law is not there to protect the drug dealers or those with a large amount of drugs. In theory, those with large amounts of drugs are dealers. Ammiano also pointed out that the law does not protect you from other infractions, such as driving under the influence.
Nationwide, drug overdoses recently overtook motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause in accidental deaths. California reflects what’s happening in the country, as a whole. The leading drug in drug overdoses is opiates. For the most part, what happens is someone will mix a painkiller with alcohol or other drugs and suffer an adverse reaction. Most drug overdoses occur relatively quickly to ingesting the drug, typically around 1-3 hours. The idea behind the law is to help prevent drug overdose deaths by making it less scary for witnesses to contact the proper authorities. Consider this: studies have shown that more than half of drug overdoses occur in the presence of at least one other person, 10-56% of witnesses call 911. According to the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, 88% of opiate users surveyed reported more likely to call 911 as a result of the new legal protection.
While the law seems to appeal to common sense principles that we hold, it does have some detractors, as well. A notable detractor is 2016 presidential hopeful and current New Jersey governor Chris Christie. The New Jersey state legislature passed a similar bill in October of 2012 but Christie vetoed the bill. He stated, “What I’m not willing to do is to give people who commit harm to other people a free pass because they picked up a telephone.” Christie’s comments also centered around the question of what if the good Samaritan was the one who gave the victims the drugs in the first place. Christie’s criticism is similar to the criticism that most people bring up. Detractors of the bill tend to focus on the idea that a good deed should not forgive the bad deeds someone has committed. In focusing on that issue, a good deed is bad enough to condemn someone for their bad actions. Meaning that if someone was to act as a “good Samaritan” in a drug overdose case without the legal protection in place, they might invite trouble into their lives and by simply ignoring the victim or dropping the victim somewhere else, then they would have avoided this trouble, altogether. As someone who has survived extreme alcohol poisoning, I know lucky I am to be alive because of the actions of my friends despite the trouble they may have gotten into. I also know the debate that went on to get me to the proper authorities. But I’m also aware of how much easier it would’ve been for my friends to act in the right way with a good Samaritan law in place.
I am not saying that the California law is perfect. It does allow for some moral and legal loopholes. For instance, if a drug dealer has a drug overdose at his/her house, what is he/she supposed to do? I understand the need, politically and other reasons, as to why the law limits itself to a small amount of drugs. Another problem is that small amounts of drugs are not defined. They are not defined in the law itself or by any of the lawmakers. Personal use of marijuana is defined in California as not exceeding 28.5 grams or 1 ounce. No other drug has a set definition for how much can be used for personal use. The problem is that the police or law enforcement might use their own discretion to decide what constitutes a “small amount of drugs” or “personal use”. Most defense attorneys in California agree that having drug paraphernalia, such as scales, baggies, or even large amounts of cash on hand might change what you’re charged with from personal use to intent to sell. They also say that it might depend on your history with drug charges on what they charge you with. These are problems when you allow discretion to be used by the police officers on what they can charge you with. Obviously, someone could fight these charges but as almost anyone can attest, lawyer fees are no joke.
In my opinion, the Good Samaritan law helps save lives but we can do a better job of it by allowing more protections for the good Samaritans. Non-violent drug offenders often crowd the US prison system, as is. What police officers and law enforcement officials claim to do by arresting non-violent drug offenders is that they are saving lives. I, personally, applaud the 911 Good Samaritan Law and think it’s a great starting point and hope that more states adopt similar practices in the future.