A person who calls 911 for help for someone who has overdosed on drugs would receive limited immunity from prosecution under a Good Samaritan Law that passed a Senate committee Thursday.

Senate Bill 20 also includes immunity from civil or criminal liability for a person who administers an antidote to a person who has overdosed on opium-based drugs. This “good Samaritan” bill has gained the backing of law enforcement agencies, support groups for the treatment of substance abusers, and advocates for reducing criminal penalties for drug use alike.

“Right now, people don’t feel comfortable calling 911,” Robert Childs, executive director of the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, told a Senate Judiciary Committee. The Harm Reduction Coalition advocates and seeks to promote healthier lifestyles for many who engage in risky personal behavior.

“They hesitate calling 911,” Childs said. “And if they don’t call 911, people don’t survive.”

Specifically, the bill would provide immunity from prosecution for people seeking medical assistance for themselves or others experiencing a drug-related overdose. The immunity would be from prosecution for misdemeanor possession of drugs, misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, felony possession of less than one gram of cocaine, and felony possession of less than one gram of heroin.

It does not provide immunity from prosecution for other crimes.

The bill also offers criminal and civil liability immunity for medical practitioners who prescribe, dispense, or distribute an opioid antidote called naloxone hydrochloride. The antidote can be distributed to a person at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose or to another person in a position to assist an at-risk person.

People administering the antidote would have a similar immunity if they have a good-faith belief that the person is experiencing a drug-related overdose.

Gregg Stahl, a lobbyist for the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, said the sheriffs “strongly support” the legislation.
Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, the bill sponsor, said that drug overdoses have become an increasingly serious problem in American society.

“Overdoses from 2000 to 2007 have doubled,” Bingham said. “In 2007, more than 27,000 people died from drug overdoses – accidental drug overdoses.”

Bingham continued, “Drug overdoses [are] the No. 2 injury-related killer of young adults. As you can see, this is a terrible, terrible problem.”

He also said that in 16 states, drug overdose deaths exceeded automobile fatalities.

Fred Brason, Project Lazarus, which seeks to prevent drug overdose deaths in western North Carolina, said that naloxone has been distributed to a number of groups, including the military and the Cherokee Indians.

“We’ve been doing this in Wilkes County a few years now,” Brason said. “We have had reversals with naloxone. We have saved lives.”

He said a number of professional groups have endorsed the antidote and some have recommended that police carry the drug, which can be administered nasally.

Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, questioned if the cost of the antidote would be an unfunded mandate on local governments. Bingham said use of the antidote would be optional, not required, and therefore not a mandate.

“This would save a lot of lives,” Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said.

The bill now goes to the Senate floor.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.