Enacting ‘Good Samaritan’ 911 Addiction Laws: A Parent How-To Guide

Blueprint heart 911 Good Samaritan laws

This blueprint guide was created in the hopes of guiding a parent, advocate or another “layperson” who is passionate about seeing Good Samaritan legislation enacted in their state. Typically, a layperson is someone who has been directly affected by substance use issues, and often affected negatively by the lack of recourse that others using substances have to ensure that those needing medical assistance for an overdose situation get the help they need.

What Are “Good Samaritan Laws”?

Laws typically referred to as “Medical Amnesty” or “911 Good Samaritan” laws are laws that allow individuals to call 911 in the event of a suspected medical emergency or overdose situation without fear of consequences for any laws they may have violated. The first state to enact such legislation was New Mexico in June 2007. Laws vary from state to state as to the degree of immunity that is allowed and what actions for which immunity are granted. As of July 15, 2017, 40 states and the District of Columbia have passed an overdose Good Samaritan law that provides some protection from arrest or prosecution for individuals who report an overdose in good faith.

How Do I Begin to Enact Medical Amnesty Laws in My State?

First, Determine Your State’s Type of Legislature

All states with the exception of Nebraska have a bicameral legislature. Most legislatures follow the format of the United States Congress and are composed of the State House (of Representatives, Delegates, etc.) and a State Senate. Bills can probably be introduced in either chamber. Bills requiring funding typically have to be introduced in the State House.

Determine the status of your legislature. The definition of full-time and part-time legislature varies based on interpretation of the duration of their calendar. Some states have full-time legislatures that meet year around. Other states have part-time legislatures that have a far shorter legislature calendar, typically meeting in the earlier part of the calendar year. The Texas legislature meets for about five months every other year. Determine the length of the legislative session. The United States Congress, as an example, has a session which consists of two calendar years. This will only be a factor if your legislation is being introduced near the end of a legislative session. Typically any pending legislation will not be carried over. You may have to start the process all over at the beginning of the next legislative session.

Form Your Group or Network

Find like-minded individuals who you believe will make a strong commitment in time and energy to seeing the law enacted. Look for parent groups and support groups for those who have experienced addiction issues or loss of a loved one. Seek out individuals from all parts of your state.

There are a number of national organizations that will be willing to participate in seeing legislation passed. The Drug Policy Alliance and National Harm Reduction Coalition are two such organizations. These organizations have staff that will participate in and advise on successful strategies proven to be effective in other states. They also may have local knowledge of your state, and may be able to let you know if there is any pending legislation. Your state more than likely has an Association of School Nurses — they are currently running many pilot programs in the schools and can be a source to educate on the initial prevention of illegal and prescription drug use. Your state’s Medical Society may also be an ally and source of information about the current levels of interest in 911 Good Samaritan Laws.

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

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.

Conclusion

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.

Read David Humes' Story on Why He Got Involved

When David lost his son to an overdose, he vowed to save a life in his son’s name. Learn about how, by using the strategies above, he helped save hundreds of lives by helping to pass Good Samaritan legislation.

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