Drug laws relaxed for 911 calls

Two people in Washington likely died of a drug overdose yesterday. Odds are good that by midnight another two people will be dead from a fatal overdose. Tomorrow another two will succumb to drugs.

Drug overdoses kill more people in Washington than traffic accidents or guns.

In 2008, nearly 800 people died from an overdose. They were young and old, rich and poor. Some were abusing illegal drugs. The majority died after taking legal prescription drugs. Often the person mixed medications with alcohol.

Many overdose deaths could have been prevented with timely medical attention.

That likely was the case for two young women who overdosed in Snohomish County in 2007. Danielle McCarthy, 16, and Kyla Helvey, 21, died within months of each other. In both instances, there were people who saw the women overdosing but never summoned aid.

Lawmakers, drug prevention specialists and health officials are hoping a new law, which takes effect Thursday, will help reduce the number of overdose deaths across the state.

The new legislation, dubbed the “911 Good Samaritan” law is aimed at getting immediate medical aid to someone suffering from a drug overdose. The law grants limited immunity to people who call 911 to get help for anyone showing signs of an overdose.

Some people who witness a drug overdose are reluctant to call for fear of being arrested, proponents said.

Under the new law, people will not be charged with drug possession if police obtained evidence for the charge only because the person called 911. The victim also won’t be charged with drug possession.

The law doesn’t offer protection from any other criminal charges.

“Prosecuting a simple drug possession charge is not more important than saving a young person’s life,” said state Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds. “The number one priority should be saving a friend’s life.”

The law also includes provisions for greater access to a prescription medication that counters the effects of an opiate overdose. Doctors and paramedics frequently use naloxone as an antidote for heroin, methadone or OxyContin overdoses. The new law makes it clear that doctors can prescribe the medication not only to those at high risk for an opiate overdose, but also to those who are likely to witness an overdose.

That may include family members of people who are on high doses of prescription pain medication, said Caleb Banta-Green, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

Eventually the drug could be distributed through public health departments to heroin users to combat overdoses. Such programs would be similar to those that offer clean needles for intravenous drug-users.

There are more than 100 programs in 15 states that distribute take-home naloxone to heroin users, Banta-Green said.

Washington is only the second state in the nation to enact a “911 Good Samaritan” law. The legislation is modeled after a law passed in New Mexico in 2007. Lawmakers there had passed legislation in 2001 to make naloxone available to heroin users and provide overdose prevention training. They continued to find that people were reluctant to call 911 to report drug overdoses. Lawmakers later passed legislation granting immunity from prosecution.

In New Mexico about 7,500 people have been trained to use Narcan, the brand name for naloxone. Statistics also indicate that since 2001 the drug reversed the effects of nearly 2,500 opiate overdoses, Banta-Green said.

Case prompted law

Washington lawmakers were moved to explore similar legislation after the death of Danielle McCarthy.

McCarthy fatally overdosed Jan. 1, 2007 after taking Ecstasy for the first time. The Puyallup teen showed signs of overdosing for eight hours, but a group of young people who were with Danielle never summoned aid.

Only after her lips were blue and her hand was clenched into a claw did two people finally take her to Stevens Hospital in Edmonds. It was too late.

Two young people who gave Danielle the drugs were convicted of controlled substance homicide. None of the other partygoers was charged with a crime.

Later that same year Kyla Helvey, of Everett, overdosed on a combination of alcohol and the potent rave drug, GHB, or gamma hydroxybutric acid.

She collapsed after drinking some of the liquid drug. Two other women tried to rouse her. When they couldn’t, they covered her with blankets, took pictures of her and then went to sleep. Helvey was dead by morning.

One woman pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter. Another pleaded guilty to a drug charge.

Timely medical attention likely would prevented the deaths of both girls.

“We wanted to remove any potential obstacles for getting help to people. By calling 911 right away, those seconds and minutes could matter,” said Gina Grappone, executive director of The Science and Management of Addiction Foundation, a Seattle-based group fighting drug addiction in young people.

Some of the parents she works with who have lost children to fatal overdoses said they’d rather have their son or daughter alive than have someone be charged with a crime.

Grappone hopes getting word out about the law will bring more attention to the dangers of drugs especially when they are mixed with other drugs and alcohol, she said.

Danielle McCarthy’s father is more skeptical about the new law and how it will be used.

He is concerned that it will provide some sort of loophole for drug users and dealers. Instead of making up new laws that may never be used, prosecutors should use the laws already on the books to their fullest extent, Patrick McCarthy said.

“We should use the laws we have, punish people with maximum penalties and show that we’re serious about these crimes,” he said. “This is another law that will go nowhere, do nothing and collect dust like the others.”

McCarthy pointed to a law passed a few years ago that makes it a crime for people to do nothing when they know someone’s life is in danger as a result of a crime. One of the cases that inspired the law was the 2002 kidnapping murder of Rachel Burkheimer, of Marysville.

None of the people who watched McCarthy’s daughter fatal overdose were prosecuted under that law, he said.

A law is not going to force someone to call 911, McCarthy said.

That takes compassion and the ability to put someone else’s needs above your own — regardless of the legal consequences, McCarthy said.

“We want people to call 911 for help. The operator isn’t going to berate you or judge you. They’ll just say ‘help is in on the way,’” McCarthy said. “Whatever you’re doing, whatever trouble you think you’ll be in, it’s nothing compared to if you let your friend die.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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