Police, Overdose, and Moral Responsibility

Police, Overdose, and Moral Responsibility

After the second call [for an ambulance] at my address, the doctors came with a team of special police who turned everything upside down in my apartment. After that they would come every other day to check if it was a drug den.
Luyda Karpova, Russia

People should be congratulated rather than punished for acting to save a life: this seems like a foregone conclusion. But in many countries, people who use drugs are compelled to make the harsh choice between saving a friend who is overdosing and risking arrest.

As one drug user in New York said to a researcher, “There is the police factor... So you might be more scared about the damn cops than saving someone's life. So that’s the choice you gotta make. You might be facin' some serious time.”

When drug laws get in the way of saving lives, a change in the moral calculus is needed. At least eight U.S. states have taken action, providing immunity for drug possession prosecutions for those found with drugs at the scene of an overdose—whether they’re the victim or a bystander who makes a good-faith effort to call for help. Other states have similar bills in the works.

Fortunately, many police choose to do the right thing. Sixty-two percent of police surveyed in Seattle, Washington said that they wouldn’t have made an arrest at an overdose scene, even before a “Good Samaritan” law was enacted to explicitly grant immunity to those who helped someone who was overdosing.

Good Samaritan laws definitely make a difference to people who use drugs—people who’ve likely had run-ins with police in the past. A study in New York City found that fatal drug overdose was significantly higher in areas with higher misdemeanor arrest rates. The authors suggest that witnesses in these areas may be more reluctant to call for help, owing to their distrust of police. In the state of Washington, on the other hand, 88 percent of opioid users interviewed said that now that they’re aware of the state’s Good Samaritan law, they’d be more likely to call emergency services during a future overdose.

Other countries are also taking action to prioritize saving lives over harmful zero tolerance. In the Republic of Georgia, the Minister of the Interior recently took the positive step of instructing police to refrain from investigating overdoses for the purposes of prosecution. With no guarantees in writing, however (and a new Minister of Interior recently installed), drug users will likely be hesitant to call for emergency help.

While laws that encourage people to call for emergency help are important, perhaps even more vital are laws that explicitly allow laypeople to carry and administer the opioid antidote naloxone. Too many countries, including China, Macedonia, and Vietnam, unnecessarily limit access to this extremely safe and easy-to-use medicine, in various ways restricting naloxone supply or administration to medical professionals.

While most people wouldn’t hesitate to inject a medication to rescue a diabetic or someone having an allergic reaction to beestings, the criminalized nature of drug use makes people afraid that they will be prosecuted for trying to save a life.

Of course, saving lives is morality of the highest order. Countries with high rates of overdose should follow the lead of those places that have made it possible to carry and administer the lifesaver naloxone without fear. 

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1 Comment


This is very true,
and unfortunately they just demonize every drug addict when someone does overdose rather than doing anything at all to try to help people with serious addictions.
Making martyrs out of the people we're supposed to be trying to protect with these laws is completely corrosive to these people's ability to recover anyways.
What we need is to strike down all mandatory minimums laws and focus on rehabilitation instead.
Addiction is an illness, not a crime.
We should be treating it, not punishing people for it.
Charging someone when they are only hurting themselves violates the harm principle.
It goes against everything that a just law is supposed to be.
if we were to strike down prohibition for marijuana all together and legalize it,
it would remove the bridge between it and harder drugs.
You see,
dealers have the opportunity to offer harder drugs to their customers when they are the ones selling such a relatively harmless drug like marijuana instead of it being sold in a store.
This also keeps there from being any kind of regulations like a legal age limit or to make sure that there aren't any harder drugs being added to the cannabis which happens on the street.
Even people who supported prohibition more than anyone are coming around now.
The ex head of the DEA is now completely against marijuana prohibition and the leading author of mandatory minimums is against it now to.
Also, around 80-90% of drug addicts are mentally ill people self-medicating and we're putting these poor souls behind bars for trying to alleviate their suffering.
The only things preventing us from moving forward are ignorance and fear of change.
I really hope to see prohibition end in my lifetime.
Not only would it help with everything I've mentioned,
but it would also take the biggest cash pot away from organized crime which would be great.
You don't have to look any farther than the history of alcohol prohibition to verify this.
Organized crime was born out of it and ending alcohol prohibition both reduced organized crime and reduced overall usage seeing as a legal age limit was enacted.
It's really common sense.
I hope that this doesn't take too much longer to change, because the longer it takes to change..
the more lives are going to be lost.

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