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MPR News 90.3 FM, Published August 11 2013

Group wants ‘Good Samaritan’ laws for drug overdoses

ST. CLOUD, Minn. – A coalition of doctors and public health advocates wants Minnesota to join a growing number of states that have laws aimed at saving the lives of drug abusers.

State Sen. Chris Eaton plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session that would provide legal immunity for those who call 911 to seek help for someone suffering an overdose. It would also increase access to a drug that revives those who overdose on opiate-based drugs, such as heroin.

Eaton became an advocate for such laws after her daughter died from an overdose in 2007.

“It was heroin – and the person who was with her spent 20 minutes to half an hour getting rid of paraphernalia and hiding things and then told the police [he] didn’t know why she was unconscious,” she said.

Eaton said her daughter might be alive if Minnesota allowed people who are near an overdose victim to call for help without fear of the consequences.

“If he hadn’t had to worry about being arrested ... he may have called for help immediately,” said Eaton, a Democrat who represents Brooklyn Center and a portion of Brooklyn Park.

Communities where the greatest numbers of kits were distributed had death rates that were 46 percent lower than communities that did not receive them.

So-called Good Samaritan laws provide varying degrees of immunity for people who call for help when there is an overdose, said Scott Burris, a professor of law at Temple University.

Another law that is gaining attention allows health care providers to prescribe a drug called naloxone – the antidote for an opioid overdose – to family members or others who may be in a position to reverse an overdose.

“Those go together as key interventions that enable witnesses at a drug overdose to start the first-aid process and maybe save somebody before 911 can get there and to make sure that they’re not afraid to call 911 for help,” said Burris, director of Center for Health Law, Policy and Practice.

So far, 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed Good Samaritan laws. Lawmakers in 16 states have also passed laws that encourage or allow the wider distribution of naloxone, according to the Network for Public Health Law, an organization of public health practitioners, lawmakers, lawyers and others.

Naloxone works much the way an EpiPen is used to treat a bee sting, said Dr. Gavin Bart, director of the division of addiction medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center. But in Minnesota naloxone can only be administered by health care professionals, he said.

Bart, who researches opiate dependency, said once someone overdoses, time is of the essence, especially in rural parts of the state where emergency help can be far away.

“Once you stop breathing, every minute that passes by causes progressive brain damage and eventually death,” he said. “So if that antidote can be administered right away precious brain space and lives are being saved.”

Bart said the legislation comes at a critical time, when the nation is seeing an unprecedented number of overdoses. He said Minnesota has seen a dramatic increase in the past seven years.

A Massachusetts study published in January found the greater number of naloxone kits distributed into a community, resulted in a greater reduction in opioid overdose deaths.

This is strong observational evidence that overdose education and naloxone distribution kits reduce opioid overdose deaths,” Walley said.

Tension between laws

Increasingly in Minnesota, prosecutors are filing third-degree murder charges against drug dealers or people who provide controlled substances that cause another person’s death.

Burris, of Temple University, said Good Samaritan laws and murder charges can’t co-exist.

“If you have a public policy that says we want to save lives,” he said, “then you make it clear to people that you’re not going to bust ‘em for really any drug-related crime if they call for help.”

Eaton, the state senator, said she doesn’t know if or how Minnesota will resolve the tension between laws that punish drug offenders and public policy that aims to save the lives of people who overdose on drugs.

She’s working with a coalition of doctors and public health workers to find co-sponsors for the bill before the Legislature convenes in February.

“I would rather that somebody’s life was saved then somebody who provided the drugs went to jail,” Eaton said. “To me the life is much more important.”