New law offers immunity to 911 callers who report drug overdose

In March of this year, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a measure that makes Washington the second state in the nation to have a law granting some legal immunity to people who call to report a drug overdose.

The measure, passed by the Legislature last month, takes effect in June. New Mexico has had a similar law since 2007.

Under the measure, people who seek help for someone suffering a drug overdose would not face prosecution for possession of drugs, but the person could still be charged with the manufacturing or sale of drugs. The measure also exempts the person suffering the overdose from prosecution, and anyone for whom the evidence is gained only because medical assistance was called. The Times story quoted lawmakers after the law was official.

"We're going to save lives," Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, told Senate sponsor, Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, after the bill signing.

There were 820 unintentional fatal drug overdoses in 2008 in Washington state, more than double the 403 in 1999, according to the state Department of Health.

Supporters said states need to do all they can to try ensure that people call 911 quickly when someone is having an overdose.

"It might take the fear out of calling for help," Franklin said.

Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, told the Seattle Times, that his group was opposed to the original bill introduced last year but became supportive of it this year once it was narrowed to ensure that those who supply drugs could still be prosecuted.

"What it came down to for us is that if it can save a few lives, it's worth it," he said.

Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island are also considering similar measures this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Alaska and Maryland have laws that allow calling 911 to be considered as a "mitigating factor" in any prosecution or sentencing for the person calling 911 or the overdose victim, but they can still be arrested and prosecuted for simple drug possession at the scene of an overdose.

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