Many overdoses happen in the presence of others – but too often people are afraid to call for medical help because they worry that police will arrive along with the ambulance – to arrest them or the overdose victim once they’re resuscitated. Though police may claim that they don’t make a practice of arresting people at the scene of an overdose, until policies are in place to ensure immunity, people remain afraid to call.
So-called “Good Samaritan” laws address this concern. Named after a Biblical story about a man who helped a stranger who’d been left for dead, these laws provide immunity for prosecution for drug possession charges for the overdose victim and those who call for help. The best laws also provide immunity for arrest and violations of probation or parole. The idea is that saving a life is more important than a low-level drug bust. At least 15 US states now have such laws.
A dire situation
Like much of the rest of the United States, the state of New Jersey has experienced an overdose epidemic – largely due to illicit prescription painkillers as well as heroin. In 2011 overdoses outpaced car accidents as the top cause of accidental death there, and Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), thought it was time to introduce legislation to tackle the problem. DPA drafted two separate bills – one a Good Samaritan bill and the other a law to promote access to naloxone. To prepare for the bill’s introduction, DPA produced a series of fact sheets about overdose in the state, what Good Samaritan laws do, and who supports them nationally, as well as a short video with testimonies from people who’d lost a family member to overdose.
The original bill that DPA drafted was very ambitious – including things like protection from asset forfeiture and violations of restraining orders. While these provisions eventually were removed, it allowed them room to negotiate in order to keep in some of the most important provisions like protections from parole or probation violations that more often keep people from calling for help. The bill was introduced in early 2012 with the chair of the Senate health committee as the main sponsor.
DPA then worked to get as many community groups on board as possible to support the bill. They were able to assemble a broad coalition of supporters – from drug treatment providers to the hospital association and religious groups. They also reached out to the media to encourage them to cover the proposed legislation.
Family members join the fight
As the Good Samaritan bill received attention in the newspapers and on TV, DPA began to get calls from parents and family members who’d lost loved ones to overdose and wanted to get involved. These family members became a vital part of the campaign, and DPA featured their stories on their website. With some media training from DPA, the families also became messengers to the press, and attended advocacy meetings with state legislators to share their personal stories. At one point, DPA brought more than two-dozen families to the state capital to speak on behalf of the bill. Many took time off of work to participate, but they felt strongly that they wanted to use the experience of their loved one’s death to help prevent others from suffering.
The proposed legislation received support from conservatives and liberals in the state legislature, and no groups came out to oppose it. It passed by a wide margin in both of the state’s legislative chambers.
With this strong support, everyone was surprised when the governor vetoed the bill.
“Those were some of the hardest phone calls I ever had to make,” recalls DPA’s Roseanne Scotti about calling the parents to break the news of the governor’s veto. “I told them that we were not giving up, that we were going to continue to keep fighting this.”
Turning a setback into an opportunity
And they did continue to advocate – they contacted local papers and got them to publish editorials urging legislators to vote to override the governor’s veto. Parents throughout the state went to their local city councils and encouraged them to issue resolutions calling for an override. The coalition was successful in getting about 20 city councils to issue such resolutions, and DPA made sure that the local media covered them and that copies were sent to the governor. Parents even held an event where they had more than 200 red roses, to which they attached the names of loved ones who’d died of an overdose and a letter asking legislators to override the veto. They presented the roses at a press event at the state house. Meanwhile, the coalition pressed forward with the still-pending naloxone access bill.
Whether it was stories in the media, letters from parents, or concerns about city council resolutions, the governor’s office was clearly getting the message that his veto was unpopular throughout the state. During a meeting with DPA staff about another matter, his office said that they wanted to pass the Good Samaritan legislation after all. They suggested simply amending the naloxone access bill (which the coalition had been successful in getting passed by the legislature and which was then awaiting action by the governor) to include much of the original Good Samaritan language. The coalition was elated. The state Senate called a special session simply to vote on the revised bill, which was approved almost unanimously. It easily passed the lower chamber as well.
The governor decided not only to sign the new bill, but to do it with a public event featuring parents and even famed New Jersey rocker Jon Bon Jovi whose own daughter had benefited from a Good Samaritan law in another state. The governor admitted that letters from parents who’d lost a loved one to overdose had played a large part in swaying him. “Apparently he takes home letters from constituents to read every night,” explains Roseanne. “This is the first time that Governor Christie had every backtracked on a veto he’d made. I think the parents testimonies played a big role in changing his mind.”