The Importance of Reporting Drug Overdoses

The Importance of Reporting Drug Overdoses

There has been a steadily growing problem in this country of fatal drug overdoses. The problem seems to parallel our growing addiction to prescription painkillers, and is one begging to be dealt with on several fronts. So far there have been proposed databases to track opiate drug prescribing and to control ‘doctor shopping’; there have been calls for less reliance on prescription painkillers by doctors; and there are pleas for patients to rid their homes of unused medications. Another attempt at dealing with the problem has come in the form of new policies which could make it more likely that a person makes the 911 call when a fellow drug user appears to have overdosed.

Thus far, eight states (New Mexico, Rhode Island, Washington, Illinois, Connecticut, Florida, New York and Colorado) have enacted laws which offer limited immunity for drug possession to anyone who calls in a drug overdose. Others are considering potential legislation. Washington state, which passed its law in 2010, has research which says that nearly 90 percent of drug users there would now be more apt to make the 911 call in the event of an overdose. There is not enough data to determine how effective the new policies are in reducing overdose deaths, but the idea is getting some pushback from law officials and some legislators.

Police in Washington, for example, say that the new law really does not affect the likelihood of a person reporting an overdose. More than 60 percent of police officers who were polled there said that in these sorts of cases (where another drug user phones in an overdose), the caller is almost never prosecuted anyway. In their estimation, the new law would have zero impact. Hospital emergency rooms are already exempt from the need to report.

While those advocating the new policies say that immunity is intended only for individuals in possession of a small amount of drugs, others worry about the unintended consequences of the legislation. How might the law be used to protect large scale operations such as drug labs from being prosecuted? What is to stop someone on the verge of arrest from swallowing a bagful of drugs in an effort to overdose and thereby avoid criminal charges? Could the law be used to protect someone like the doctor who was prescribing drugs for Michael Jackson? The concerns over unintended consequences are many.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that opiate overdose fatalities have tripled in the past decade. There were over 36,000 such overdose deaths in 2008. The opiate abuse problem seems to be worst in Oklahoma while the lowest rate is reported in Iowa and Nebraska. Whether these new 911 policies will help reduce the number of overdose deaths in any state or simply blur the line between legal and illegal behavior remains to be seen.

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