Determine Legislation Status
Determine if there is current proposed legislation. Use your state’s website to perform a search. Call the office of your State Senator and/or State Representative to determine if any legislation exists. (If you aren’t registered to vote, make sure you do so prior to making the call. In making the call, identify yourself as a voting constituent of your elected official.) Attempt to meet face to face with your elected official and let him or her know what you are interested in accomplishing. If such legislation exists, ask for a copy. Read the law to determine if it something that you can support. Have a lawyer review the law and break it down and interpret it if necessary.
First and foremost, the question you need to ask is, “Will this law be used to save lives?” If there is no legislation pending, there are two organizations you can contact. The Drug Policy Alliance has staff lawyers that will provide you with draft legislation specific to your state and current laws, and will do this at no charge. Public Health Law may also provide draft legislation.
Assess “Life Saving” vs. “Law Enforcement”
Law enforcement can be your friend or your enemy. It is important to have the support of various law enforcement agencies – Attorneys General, District Attorneys, Police Chiefs. The focus for any 911 Good Samaritan Law should address it as a life-saving health issue, not a law enforcement issue. In many instances, 911 Good Samaritan Laws have been drafted by District Attorneys with input from various law enforcement agencies. Often forgotten is the community who is most likely to be affected: those who potentially may use drugs. Legislation needs to focus in promoting the community to make the call, rather than leaving the scene of a human being in distress.
Find a Champion
Look for someone in your legislature who may have been personally touched by the disease of addiction or is passionate about saving lives. If it isn’t your own elected official, look at others in the legislature. One way of finding a champion is by researching the largest newspapers in your state for articles discussing addiction issues as elected officials are often quoted. There may be other individuals interviewed who view this legislation in a positive light. You may want to find the newspaper’s health reporter and contact them. You can also read biographies of other state legislators. Find individuals who seem passionate about health issues. Determine if any are doctors, nurses or educators. If you still have problems, look at the standing committees in the House and or Senate. Contact the chair of standing committees that address health, human and social services.
There are some key words, phrases and definitions that should be included in any proposed bill:
- life-saving legislation – keep it a health issue
- layperson / condition that a layperson could reasonably believe – allows anyone to report an overdose
- immunity for arrest, charges or prosecution – arrest, even without prosecution, is a deterrent to making the call due to fear of loss of job, etc.
- immunity to those on probation and parole – (see above)
Introduce the Bill
The “grand slam” would be to introduce legislation in the State House, include a Naloxone law and specify funding for both 911 Good Samaritan laws and Naloxone. Often that will prove to be biting off more than the politicians can chew — so it may be best to keep things simple. Introduce a broad 911 Good Samaritan Law in the State Senate. The advantages of this strategy are that you are dealing with a smaller body and there is no money involved. There should be no objection to passing legislation that saves lives.
Passage by the Senate will provide momentum for passage in the House. Passage of a 911 Good Samaritan Law can be the foundation of creating greater public awareness and ending the stigma of the disease of addiction. From that point you may attempt to gain funding, pass Naloxone laws and other programs.
Typically a bill introduced in either house will be given a number and assigned to a standing committee. The goal is to have the bill assigned to a health and human services committee, rather than a judicial committee. Keep in mind that you are working with politicians. They do not want to give the appearance that they are “soft on crime.” The unenlightened may view it as a “law enforcement issue.” Again, this should constantly and consistently be made a life-saving issue, not a law enforcement issue.
Once in committee, hearings will be held. These are typically referred to as “public hearings.” This can have two definitions. In some states, hearings are completely open to the general public to make comment. In others, these hearings are merely conducted in public. In this type of hearing you may be able to attend but not be allowed to make comment. You can put in a request to the chair of the standing committee to be invited to make comment. If you are making public comment, make sure that you have written comment prepared to submit to the committee. There is an emotional impact on legislators when they hear testimony from families who have lost loved ones to the disease of addiction. Bring a photograph of the victim of the disease.
Hopefully, your law is moved out of the House or Senate committee to a full vote of the respective chamber. In many instances, there is testimony provided to the chamber. In this instance, you must be invited to testify. Optimistically, your bill passes that chamber and is referred to the other chamber where the process is repeated. It is probable that there will a reporter at the hearings. Attempt to make contact with any media covering the event. They will sometimes seek you out. Speak with legislators after the hearing has concluded. Let them get to know you and any families who have lost loved ones to the disease.
Mobilize Support of the Legislation
Once you have a draft of a bill, the legislator that is your champion that will introduce it, and you must mobilize support. Now is the time for your group or network to take action. Attempt to speak with the media, particularly newspapers. Health reporters may be your first contact. Contact local radio and television stations that may interview you to create awareness of the legislation and why it is needed.
Based on votes on prior legislation, you may determine who might vote “no.” Target those who may oppose you with well-written emails asking them to support the legislation, and include your reasons why it needs to be supported. Have as many constituents as possible contact their legislators. Keep your email brief and professional. Do not get overly emotional or resort to any kind of negativity. At the same time, contact those who you believe will support the legislation. Use social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and try to use state-specific hashtags, increasing awareness among the general public.
During the entire process, make sure you and your group are totally non-partisan. Stay away from using party identification and words such as “liberal,” “conservative,” etc. Consider changing your voter registration to independent / non-partisan as well (you can always change it back later). Stay away from controversy in letters to the editor, public statements and your Facebook page. You can be respectfully fearless in promoting this life-saving legislation without being controversial. Always make sure that you hammer away at “life-saving legislation” in all of your communication.
These are just general guidelines for passing 911 Good Samaritan legislation. Every state will be different, but the ideas and strategies listed here have proven to be successful in other states. With help from advocates like you, we can ensure that every single state has a 911 Good Samaritan Law that will save countless lives, and ensure that those struggling with addiction get the help and support they need.