Accidental overdose deaths are now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, exceeding even motor vehicle accidents among people ages 25 to 64, according to a recently released study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Last year, an estimated 210 heroin overdoses fatalities occurred in Virginia, with the highest number in Fairfax and Prince William counties.
“Many of these deaths are preventable if a friend or witness seeks emergency assistance right away,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34). “But people using drugs or alcohol illegally often fear arrest if they call 911.”
In an attempt to reduce overdose deaths, Petersen introduced Senate Bill 892 during last year’s General Assembly session. The new law — the “Good Samaritan overdose protection bill” — was signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe last week in Richmond, and goes into effect on July 1.
Commonly referred to in other states as “911 Good Samaritan,” the law encourages witnesses at the scene of a suspected drug or alcohol overdose to seek emergency assistance right away without fear of arrest for minor drug law violations.
Virginia now joins 20 other states, including the District of Columbia, that have enacted policies to provide limited immunity from arrest or prosecution for minor drug law violations for people who summon help at the scene of an overdose.
“This law provides an affirmative defense for individuals who take responsible measures to report an overdose, remain at the scene of the overdose until emergency services arrive, and identify themselves to the responding officer,” Petersen said.
Petersen said a fellow Fairfax High School classmate, Gerard Lawson, a professor at Virginia Tech, brought the issue to his attention.
Lawson was organizing a class project to lobby state legislators on criminal law reforms. His students had the idea to protect "Good Samaritans" who report a drug overdose to emergency services.
Lawson said his students noted that the chance of surviving an overdose, like that of surviving a heart attack, depends greatly on how fast one receives medical assistance.
Witnesses to heart attacks rarely think twice about calling 911, but witnesses to an overdose often hesitate to call for help or, in many cases, simply don’t make the call, Lawson said.
Research confirms the most common reason people cite for not calling 911 is fear of police involvement.
But the new law, Petersen added, is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for those who sell or traffic large quantities of drugs, or those who commit acts of violence, felonies, or distribute drugs.
"The next step is to get the word out to young people: If a friend is in distress, you have a responsibility and now you have legal protections. Do the right thing. Make a call to save a life," Petersen said during the signing ceremony last week.