Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Good Samaritan Laws and the EMSAA

This is an editorial written by a student 

Imagine that you're driving down the road and witness a car crash right in front of you. You stop the car and get out to help. There is a person lying on the ground not breathing. You call 911 and start doing what you can, remembering bits and pieces of CPR from health class. The paramedics arrive and take the person away. You later find out that because you performed CPR incorrectly, you broke that person's sternum and punctured a lung. They died due to complications. Now you obviously feel guilty, but you did everything you could to help someone in need. But what happens if the family blames you for killing their loved one and decide to sue you? 

Simply put, Good Samaritan laws protect rescuers from prosecution of wrongful death or unintentional injury in a situation like this. Laws like these are designed to reduce a bystander's sense of hesitation when it comes to helping in an emergency situation. People are more likely to help someone if they don't fear being sued due to improper medical treatment. These laws have probably saved many lives, and eliminated some wrongful death or unintentional injury suits. But the lines between good Samaritan and actually being at fault become blurred when drug use comes into the mix. Say you're shooting up heroin with a friend and they overdose. What you are doing was illegal, you get several years in prison for an offense like heroin use. How likely are you to call emergency services to help you? Even if you could save that person's life? More people die of drug overdoses than car accidents though in Illinois, so this particular situation is more common.

 In 2012, the Illinois legislature passed EMSAA or the Good Samaritan Overdose Law. This law is designed to protect those who help save the lives of opiate drug overdose victims (Stop Overdose Illinois). Not only does it protect the person helping the victim, but it protects the victim as well. Laws like this are important, not only because they have shown to prove lives, but because they help to decriminalize substance abuse issues. Instead of getting prison time or fees, a person gets a second chance and may be able to get the substance abuse help they need. However, the practical application of this law falls woefully short of its designed purpose. 

Several cases have presented where the good Samaritan involved ended up being charged for aggravated battery, assault, or even murder if the person doesn't survive the overdose. Many families of survivors and victims feel the need to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, and most prosecutors are only too happy to comply with their client's wishes. But this attitude doesn’t help anyone; it can contribute to more deaths because people are scared to report. This can be attributed by the general desire of law enforcement to crack down on drug use, especially the widespread heroin epidemic. But don't these actions by law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys, and judges directly counteract the purpose of Good Samaritan laws in the first place. Most cases of drug overdose have witnesses present, and research has shown that a major factor in seeking help from emergency services is fear of being arrested (Tobin et al, 2005). So why wouldn't we offer amnesty for those present during an overdose to increase the likelihood of reporting? How many lives could this save?
Most of this goes back to the 1980s, when the "War on Drugs" officially began and small time offenders were heavily criminalized. They sanctioned this criminalization by saying they were out to get the dealers, the kingpins, the ring leaders. But these top dogs of the drug world aren't the ones shooting up with other junkies in vans or boarded up houses. And it's these people who are more likely to overdose. In order to reduce drug overdose deaths, we really need to focus on providing a safe environment for addicts. And since this government won't provide drug clinics, where addicts can have access to clean needles and be monitored during their use, like some European countries, the least we can do is to not penalize people who try to do the right thing. It takes a certain sort of courage to call and report a drug overdose when you were involved and may have been using during it. So why not reward these courageous people with not being jailed or fined? 

And it is understandable why family members would want those present during their loved ones overdose prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But unfortunately, that doesn't help. You take small time drug offenders and charge them with assault, battery, or murder charges. You have people with real drug problems who don't get the help they need and instead get sentenced to lengthy prison terms. So now you have this tragedy for not one family, but two or more; the family of the victim and the families of the witnesses. Saving lives has to come first in these situations. Scaring people out of addictions simply doesn't work. 

Stop Overdose Illinois: http://www.stopoverdoseil.org/

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