It is a scene often seen in movies or on television dramas: someone overdoses on alcohol or drugs, and his friends are afraid to call 911 because they don’t want the police to find the drugs and arrest anyone for possession of the drugs or underage possession of alcohol. This never goes well for the person who has overdosed, and the other characters have to deal with the guilt associated with their forever-harmed or dead friend.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just something that happens on television. It is something that happens in real life. Georgia is now 15th in the number of states that have passed a medical amnesty bill that is hoped to save lives by taking away the fears of the people in a position to seek emergency help.
House Bill 965, which was the originally proposed legislation, acknowledges that more than 600,000 Americans used heroin in 2012, and its use is spreading into suburban and rural areas, “where is it used predominantly by young adults between the ages of 18 and 29.” The bill itself also acknowledges the proven success in saving lives in states like North Carolina and Massachusetts.
Like all other legislation, it starts with a definition of what a drug overdose is. “’Drug overdose’ means an acute condition, including, but not limited to, extreme physical illness, decreased level of consciousness, respiratory depression, coma, mania, or death, resulting from the consumption or use of a controlled substance or dangerous drug by the distressed individual in violation of this chapter or that a reasonable person would believe to be resulting from the consumption or use of a controlled substance or dangerous drug by the distressed individual.” The code then goes on to define what a drug violation is, and what medical assistance is. Nothing in the law goes undefined.
Here’s the unique part: the law then goes on to say that “[a]ny person who in good faith seeks medical assistance for a person experiencing or believed to be experiencing a drug overdose shall not be arrested, charged, or prosecuted for a drug violation if the evidence for the arrest, charge, or prosecution of such drug violation resulted solely from seeking such medical assistance.” Additionally, you can’t be penalized for violating a protective order; or violating probation or parole just because you sought medical assistance for someone (including yourself) having an overdose.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the courts. The definitions of drug offenses in this code section do not include sales and trafficking. They also do not specifically describe what would or could happen to someone if there were other evidence about the drugs that the officer might have been able to find without the 911 rescue call. My guess is that there will be a number of arrests based on ‘independent’ probable cause – it will be very difficult for officers to see evidence of rampant drug use and not want to do something about it.
The law also authorizes ambulances and other first responders to keep an “opioid antagonist” to first responders who have had the appropriate training. An opioid antagonist is a drug that counteracts the effects of heroin and other opiates, which are common in prescription narcotics. First responders are also specifically held not liable if the remedy turns out to be worse than the cause – they can’t be sued if something goes wrong so long as they tried in good faith to do their best.
Drugs are no doubt harmful, and their use should not be encouraged. That said, we have to face reality: a reality in which people are going to use illegal drugs and alcohol in harmful ways. No one should be punished for trying to save them.
This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation. I have not done that here.