To Call Or Not To Call

MARIA JOSE ALDANA

You are at a house party of a friend, of a friend, of a friend.  It has been a crazy night, and you go upstairs to take a break and wash your face in the sink.  When you open the door to the restroom, you find a person who is overdosing. What do you do? Do you call 911?

According to the CDC, “deaths from drug overdose have been rising steadily over the past two decades and have become the leading cause of injury death in the United States”.  Many of these deaths could be prevented if people could receive timely medical attention.  However, the fear of police involvement and potential arrest or prosecution, stops many people that witness an OD to call 911.

I just moved to Washington, D.C. to work with an organization called HIPS, which works from a harm reduction approach to promote healthier behaviors in individuals that engage in sex work and drug use.  Just last week, I learned about a new law that was passed in DC this year.  A representative of the Drug Policy Alliance came to the office to speak about the 911 Good Samaritan Overdose Law.  Any Good Samaritan Law aims to protect those who offer assistance to people who are injured or in danger of peril, from arrest or prosecution from “wrongdoing”.  In this particular case, if you witness an OD and report it to 911, this law protects you from being arrested or prosecuted for drug possession.  New Mexico was the first state to pass a Good Samaritan law, in 2007, and today, a total of fourteen states plus DC have passed it so far.  The law protects “only the caller and overdose victim from arrest and/or prosecution for simple drug possession, possession of paraphernalia, and/or being under the influence”.

There are some questions that popped into my mind as I learned about this law.  First, how can we bridge the gap between policy frameworks and actual implementation of laws on a daily basis? How can we, as ordinary citizens, have ownership of the laws of the places where we live?  How much power of negotiation do different sectors of the population have when they find themselves in situations where they could be arrested or prosecuted?  How is this connected to the power of information, of media, the use and access to statistics and data?  How can we educate ourselves and others in more efficient ways to learn about legal systems? Finally, what implications do these laws have on bigger, structural issues, like the ongoing wars on drugs or harm reduction approaches in public health?  I don’t pretend to answer all these questions here, but merely want to start a space for conversation and dialogue.

First of all, we need to be better informed of the laws that govern the places where we live.  This might change by region, country, or state (or other political divisions).  As citizens, and even as temporary visitors (like myself), it is important to know and to get informed of your context.  So if you are living in the U.S., this is a map of the different states where you can see where and when the Good Samaritan OD Prevention law passed.  I’m a visual learner, so I like the map, but there’s other useful resources you can tap into as well.

In terms of power: knowledge is power, but it really depends on how we use it.  Know your rights. Promote empowerment in others by sharing information about our rights.  How can we bring law into practice?  As individuals, how can this promote changes in our behaviors?  As members of society, of countries and regions, what do these laws imply when we practice them?  As a Guatemalan, I’ve been thinking a lot about how a Good Samaritan law can influence the region and other governments, the drug policies and tinged drug wars, as well as the public health systems and approaches to drug use, prevention and delivery of health services.There are more questions than answers for sure.  But that is how we can start a process of ownership of abstract laws and put them into practice.  I tell myself: “ask difficult questions, read more, and read different sources.  Take risks, question your mental structures and what you think you know or even need to know.”  We hear a lot about different types of injury-related deaths in the news, but not much about deaths due to OD.  Why?  Not talking about certain things or about sub-populations in our societies does not make them invisible or unreal issues.  We are talking about people, people who use drugs, yes, but nevertheless, human beings.
If it was you or a friend of yours overdosing, would you want someone to save a life by calling 911?  You are in a house party you were invited to and when you go upstairs to the restroom . . .
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2 thoughts on “To Call Or Not To Call

  1. Xian Zhang says:

    Fantastic questions, Majo. My undergraduate degree was a pre-law program that touched upon a lot of social justice issues, and these are exactly the same questions we discussed – the dialectic discourse between law and society, how legal codes translate to reality/practice, the uneven power dynamics between those who write the laws and those who are punished by them, etc. What power structures generated our legal norms? How do different groups of people experience the law? These are questions that need to be asked because in the end, our laws are a social agreement about how we should all live together.

    One thing I loved thinking about was the role of discourse and storytelling in the legal field. I think we can impact how people think about others, and their behavior, and from there, the way we live and treat others can impact the laws that are generated. Laws are impacted by society, and vice versa, and we have seen that discourse in action through the civil rights era, in allowing women to vote, and in our current debates around equal marriage. Also, in a courtroom, how well you tell a believable story if what wins the case, and we can work to make that a much fairer forum – someone with money can post bail and come to court in a suit, someone who can’t afford it will come in a different suit, orange in color. In the end, our laws are upheld by imperfect humans who cannot be perfectly objective, so we need to work to at least recognize how traits such as race, gender and economic status impact decision making in our justice system.

    • Thanks for your insights Xian. I agree with many of your points. I think there’s a lot behind words, behind how people are treated based on ethnicity, skin color, economic status. The question of how different groups of people experience law really caught my eye. I think we should have more research and feedback on that, so that we can redefine and rebuild legal systems that are more inclusive and fair.

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