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June 14, 2007 - New Mexican (NM)

New Law Protects Good Samaritans

People Who Call 911 About An Overdose Will Be Immune From Prosecution For Drug Possession

By Diana Del Mauro, The New Mexican

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Starting today, if a friend or relative has a drug overdose, you don't have to worry about getting caught with illicit drugs in your possession if you call 911 for medical help.

The person who overdoses is protected, too.

New Mexico is the first state in the nation to execute the Good Samaritan Law, according to the state Health Department. The new state law means people who call for help will be immune from prosecution for drug possession.

"With overdoses, we know that the faster we intervene, the better our chances are of saving lives. This law puts saving lives first," said Reena Szczepanski, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, a group that lobbied lawmakers this year to pass the measure.

After years of being No. 1, New Mexico now has the third highest drug-related death rate in the nation, according to the state Health Department. West Virginia is No. 1; Utah is No. 2.

The new law doesn't provide blanket protection for Good Samaritans, though.

"There are exceptions to this. You can't have warrants. It doesn't protect you if you're on probation or parole," said Bernie Lieving, the Health Department's harm reduction coordinator.

Also, if 911 responders see evidence you're trafficking drugs or committing other crimes, you could get busted, he said.

Lieving said the law fits nicely with the Health Department's needle-exchange and overdose-prevention programs. An estimated 7,000 drug users are active in the needle-exchange program.

More than 1,700 opiate users in the program, and their friends and families, have been trained on how to prevent overdoses, use drugs more safely, recognize signs of an overdose and perform rescue breathing and inject Narcan into someone overdosing.

Narcan is a prescription drug that reverses the effects of opioids.

In recent months, the harm-reduction staff has been educating clients about the new law. A bilingual business-size card explains the life-saving merits of the law on the front and lists exceptions to law on the back.

"I think it will open the door for friends and family members to seek 911 emergency medical services when they may not have in the past," Lieving said.

The Health Department used to stock a low-level version of Narcan specifically for use in heroin overdoses because it doesn't precipitate immediate withdrawal symptoms like the full dose does. "Our idea is to save a person's life, not to put them in withdrawal," Lieving said.

Recently, however, that low-level Narcan medication has gone off the market. So the Health Department now uses a form of Narcan that can be released in a person's nostrils as a mist.

Many people in the needle exchange program have a prescription for Narcan. Since the Narcan program started in 2001, the medication has saved at least 400 lives, according to the Health Department.

In the mid-1990s, Lieving was an emergency medical technician in San Jose, Calif. He said he'd get two or three overdose calls a shift.

People who call 911 should describe the victim's symptoms, such as turning blue, having seizures or being unresponsive, he said. They should expect the 911 operator will keep them on the phone and guide them through life-saving interventions until an ambulance can get there.

No matter how capable a Good Samaritan is at reviving an overdose victim, Lieving still recommends seeking medical help. Eventually Narcan wears off, and the overdose victim can benefit from being monitored at the hospital.

If the overdose victim does not go to the hospital, it's important for someone to stay for a while after the overdose victim awakens. Within 60 to 90 minutes of being revived, an overdose victim can nod out again, Lieving said.

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