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11 May 2017

Witnesses to drug overdoses can now call 911 without fearing criminal charges

May 09, 2017 by Samantha Beattie Waterloo Chronicle


It just got a little easier to save the lives of people who are overdosing on drugs.

Under the Good Samaritan Overdose Act, passed last week in the House of Commons, those who witness an overdose and call 911 get immunity from simple drug possession charges.

Also, a person on probation or parole, with a court order not to be around narcotics, will not face breach charges when reporting an overdose.

The Good Samaritan law, private members Bill C-224, is part of the federal government’s Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy announced in December. The creation of the law stems from Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council research done in 2012 that found a major barrier to witnesses calling for help in the event of an overdose was fear of criminal repercussions, said Michael Parkinson, WRCPC’s community engagement coordinator.

Recent data found 911 was called for only a third of overdoses where a witness was present. Even when 911 was called or the victim was taken to hospital, the witness would often flee.

“During an opioid crisis, it is critical to remember that the victim cannot save themselves — they are absolutely dependent on the presence of a Good Samaritan,” Parkinson said, adding in the best case scenario, witnesses will stay and help the victim until paramedics arrive — something the Good Samaritan law encourages.

“We are all hoping this act improves those 911 call rates because we know this can be the difference between life and death, between a lifetime of disability, or not. This really is a life-saving act — no question.”

Between January and March, there were 158 overdoses in Waterloo Region involving people between 20 and 40 years old. Twenty of those overdoses were fatal.

Fentanyl was proved to be a factor in 25 overdoses in March and is suspected, but not confirmed, in another 13.

Parkinson is predicting there will be another 44 opioid-related overdose fatalities before the end of the summer. Across Ontario, there’s about one opioid-related overdose every 12 hours.

“Many of those deaths, and the deaths this week, are preventable,” he said.

Witnesses cannot be exempt from some charges, including drug trafficking and impaired driving and if there’s an outstanding warrant for their arrest.

Parkinson said now it’s important to monitor how the Good Samaritan law is effective and make changes if necessary.

“We also urge a significant education and training campaign to let people who enforce the law, people who use drugs and everyone in between know about the act,” Parkinson said. “A law no one knows about is not much of a law.”

WRCPC and the Kingston Community Health Centre held a design workshop last week to determine what education and training might look like, but at this point organizations on the ground are stretched thin.

“Those least equipped to deal with the opioid crisis are forced to confront it,” he said.

Although the WRCPC does not directly work with people using opioids, Parkinson said those affected often end up phoning, emailing and stopping by his office looking help.

So far in 2017, he’s gone to half a dozen funerals for people who have died of overdoses.

“I still get calls from grieving parents and children because there is no where else to go,” he said.

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