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N.C. Senate bill expands protections for those at scene of overdoses

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DTH Photo Illustration. The passage of Senate Bill 458 by the N.C. General Assembly could further the state's Good Samaritan Law, which provides legal protections related to overdoses.

Last year, North Carolina saw 4,243 suspected overdose deaths, according to a report from the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

N.C. Senate Bill 458, if passed, would expand upon existing protections for individuals present at the scene of overdoses. The bill would amend state law to add additional stipulations that prevent bystanders from being held liable for seeking medical assistance.

The bill was most recently referred to the Committee On Rules and Operations in the state Senate on April 3.

Current legislation provides limited immunity to people experiencing overdoses and the person who calls 911 at the scene. The proposed bill would extend that immunity to everyone present at the scene of an overdose where medical assistance is requested. 

“Current Good Samaritan laws do not do enough to protect our citizens and need to be expanded,” Reid Getty, an outreach worker and field phlebotomist for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, said.

The bill would also expand immunity from prosecution over the possession or presence of fentanyl if found due to calling medical assistance for someone experiencing an overdose. Getty said this is a significant change due to the prevalence of fentanyl in reported overdoses and the drug supply in general.

Lee Storrow, the senior director of external affairs for the Community Education Group, said North Carolina's Good Samaritan legislation needs to have “common sense” provisions that are comprehensive and unified in protecting the possession of all types of drugs in emergency situations. 

He said it’s easier and more effective to educate the public on Good Samaritan protections when the coverage is broad.

Tiffany Hall is the harm reduction clinical coordinator for Orange County’s Street Outreach, Harm Reduction and Deflection program. She said the program provides harm reduction services and resources, such as Narcan, and deflects interactions between law enforcement and people experiencing homelessness.

Hall said overdose deaths sometimes happen after the friends or acquaintances of someone experiencing an overdose did not call for help soon enough. This is often because they feared being arrested due to their own use of the illicit substance.

She said S.B. 458 could play a role in preventing that from happening.

“I definitely think that it's very good so that it can reduce the stigma of ‘Hey, I don't want to help my friend,’” Hall said. 

Storrow said North Carolina should join a majority of states that protect people from being arrested under their Good Samaritan laws.

“Currently, you are not protected from arrest in North Carolina,” he said. “So you know, you can have a circumstance where law enforcement arrested someone and then ultimately charges weren't filed, but the experience of being arrested–you know, going through the court system— can be a deterrent to folks calling for medical assistance.”

N.C. Sen. Gale Adcock (D-Wake), one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said this bill is meant to prioritize saving the lives of people experiencing overdoses. She said there needs to be a system that does not penalize people who make risky decisions that stem from a lack of knowledge and life experience.

“I mean, I think this is this is the opportunity for us to put saving lives ahead of our law-and-order mentality,” Adcock said.

N.C. Sen. Graig Meyer (D-Orange, Caswell, Person) said the proposed bill's intent is to not have people run away from an overdose situation because they are afraid of getting in trouble themselves.

“The intended effect is that you have fewer fatal overdoses,” Meyer said. “The intended effect is literally saving lives.”

He said this bill may conflict with Senate Bill 189, which would increase the penalties for the distribution of fentanyl and other drug trafficking offenses. This bill passed the N.C. Senate on March 14 and is now in committees in the House. 

“I think it reflects that we don't have a very clear approach to how we want to deal with harm reduction to try and decrease drug abuse because we kind of want to punish people and have safety mechanisms at the same time,” Meyer said.

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