Editorial | Calling for help

A new law passed earlier this year by the Washington Legislature offers a small but potentially effective way to save lives. The law, which goes into effect June 10, is to encourage those who witness a drug overdose to call for help. Why on earth, you ask. Health officials say that many drug overdose deaths occur because those who are there delay or forego calling 911 for fear of arrest or police involvement if there are illegal substances at the scene. Instead, Senate Bill 5516, aka a “911 Good Samaritan” law, gives immunity from drug charges to people who seek medical assistance in drug overdose situations. Similar laws have been passed in other states.

Shockingly, drug overdose is the leading cause of unintentional injury death in Washington state, ahead of motor vehicle-related deaths. Our state is one of 16 states in which drug overdoses cause more deaths than traffic accidents. Drug overdose mortality rates have increased significantly since the 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and illegal and prescription drug overdoses killed more than 38,000 people nationwide in 2006. The Washington state Department of Health reports that in 1999, unintentional drug poisoning was responsible for 400 deaths in this state; by 2007, the number had increased to 761 compared with 610 motor vehicle-related deaths that same year.

This is unacceptable.

This new law does not alleviate anyone’s responsibility in preventing death and injury by drug use. Our efforts and campaigns to educate all about the dangers of drug abuse — with either prescription or illegal substances — should continue unabated. But as much as we abhor drug and alcohol abuse, we want people to set aside their fears of being caught or blamed and call for help if they find themselves in a situation where someone could die.

For more information, go to the King County Department of Health or the Washington Legislature for more on the 911 ‘Good Samaritan’ law or SB 5516.

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