Our nation is suffering from an opioid epidemic. In 2018, opioid overdoses caused 20% of the total fatalities among young American adults (defined as people ages 18-25). Researchers found that between 2001 and 2016, the number of opioid related deaths in the United States more than quadrupled. Our nation is at a loss over how to address the ever-increasing number of overdose deaths. Most of the discussion over fighting the war on this drug relates to changing doctors’ prescribing habits. Although this is a necessary step, it is not the only measure that must be taken. We must also provide addicts with effective drug-assisted and other therapy and encourage users and the friends, family and acquaintances of users to seek help for themselves and/or for their loved ones.
In the United States, 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some sort of Good Samaritan Drug Law or 911 Drug Immunity law. Washington State’s Good Samaritan Overdose Law RCW 69.50.315 provides specific protections against drug possession charges. Specifically: (i) if you seek medical assistance in a drug-related overdose, you cannot be prosecuted for drug possession; (ii) the overdose victim is also protected from drug possession charges; and (iii) anyone in Washington state who might have witnessed or did witness an opioid overdose is allowed to carry and administer naloxone (naloxone is a drug that reverses opiate overdoses). The rationale behind these protections is the recognition that prompt medical attention is essential to saving a victim from an overdose. We must encourage bystanders to seek medical care for users without fear that they will be charged with a crime for doing so.
The 911 Drug Immunity Law is particularly relevant in the cases of opioid overdose because many opioid related deaths can be prevented by the administration of naloxone. The bad news is that often bystanders do not have ready access to naloxone. Washington’s version of the Good Samaritan Law addresses this issue by permitting anyone “at risk for having or witnessing a drug overdose” to obtain naloxone and administer it in an overdose. This includes individuals who use opioids, family members, friends and professionals. Naloxone law ESHB 1671 also permits naloxone to be prescribed to an “entity” such as a homeless shelter, police department or social service agency. Together, these laws allow a community agency to have naloxone on site and its employees to carry and administer naloxone in the event of an overdose. EHSB 1671 also allows non-medical persons to distribute naloxone under a prescriber’s standing order. Under Washington law, anyone acting in good faith to prevent an opioid overdose may administer, prescribe, dispense, purchase, acquire, possess or use naloxone.
There is no doubt that the misuse of and addiction to opioids is a serious national crisis that impacts public health as well as social and economic welfare. Every day more than 130 people in the United States die by overdosing on opioids. The state of Washington is not immune from this epidemic. This is not a problem that will be fixed quickly or easily. However, Washington’s 911 Drug Immunity Law, which enables users to receive naloxone immediately and to obtain medical attention without fear of criminal action, can be a powerful tool for saving many lives needlessly lost to overdose.