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Should 911 callers who report drug ODs be protected?

CA Assemblyman, Tom Ammiano
CA Assemblyman, Tom Ammiano
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In Sacramento, lawmakers are close to passing a bill that grants limited immunity on drug charges when someone calls 911 for medical help with an overdose. The supporters of AB 472 said too many witnesses are scared to call for emergency assistance for an overdose victim.

Researchers and law enforcement officials say fear of arrest and incarceration is the number one reason people don't call 911 and potentially save a life, according to Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's office (D -13th District). Several other states have passed similar legislation in recent years. In California, the proposed law is being met with very little opposition.

Only the California State Sheriffs' Association warns about a very big loophole for known drug-possession offenders. In its submission to the California Senate, sheriffs' representatives argued: "An example would be a known drug dealer who provides narcotics to an individual and the person overdoses. In virtually every instance, law enforcement will make an arrest in this situation. AB 472 would remove law enforcements [sic] discretion and ability to arrest a serious drug dealer in this situation, allowing them to go back on the street and continue to commit serious crimes."

According to Meghan Ralston of the Drug Policy Alliance, the policy is designed to be very specific, encouraging those with a small possession of narcotics to make a call.

"When someone is abandoned on a sidewalk that's obviously not ideal," she said. "What we want is to encourage people who might have a couple pills of ecstasy in their pocket to quickly get to a phone."

Curtis Hill, legislative representative for the California State Sheriff’s Association said his clients question the necessity of the policy because in their experience, law enforcement doesn't usually roll to calls about overdose. He added that most agencies already have policies on how to deal with overdose issues in crack houses or college binge parties. Hill said clients are mainly concerned that the policy is "on a slippery slope."

"Where the concern is," Hill continued, "is that in the event that 911 call comes in and a law enforcement agency nearby rolls in and the possessors in that environment make a contemporaneous statement that they're overdosing and want medical assistance — are they in a clear from criminal liability?"

Could the law be tailored to allay this concern? What has been the experience of other states with this immunity protection? Would drug users even be aware of such a law? How often do police arrest 911 callers in possession of narcotics?


Meghan Ralston, Harm Reduction coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance; Ralston is based in Los Angeles

Curtis Hill, Legislative Representative, California State Sheriff’s Association; former three-term sheriff for San Benito County, California