Stories from the Movement

911 Good Samaritan Laws: Reducing Fear, Saving Lives

One of the reasons I co-founded the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University in 2005 was to bring about a public health approach to drug use.

I’ve spent the last decade of my life working to help others understand and treat people who use drugs with compassion, as one would with any other health condition.

Research shows that the primary reason people don’t call 911 in the event of a drug overdose is the fear of police involvement, arrest and prosecution. I understand this fear both as a re¬searcher and from my own experience as a former heroin user.

I became addicted to heroin in college. At one point I used heroin with my boyfriend and watched him overdose. I had to call 911 – a call that was nearly impossible to make.

Our friends were screaming at me for making the call, worried that we would all get in trouble. It was a moment of paralyzing chaos. At the time I wondered if I was doing the right thing. Now I know that no one should think twice about calling 911 for fear of arrest, which is why passing a 911 Good Samaritan law will take away that fear and save lives.

This reform is needed now more than ever. Drug overdose, to both legal and illegal drugs, is now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. People need to know that if they have a friend or family member who misuses their prescription pain medication they should call 911 without any doubt that they are doing the right thing.

We got lucky that time. My boyfriend regained consciousness just before the paramedics arrived. While my experi¬ence is in line with how Hollywood might portray an overdose, in fact today it is more common for someone to overdose on prescription painkillers, the very pills you might have in your medicine cabinet right now.

No one should have to weigh the life of another human being against the chance of arrest when they call 911. That was why, as a former heroin user and as a current researcher and advocate, I knew I needed to work on passing a 911 Good Samaritan law in Illinois.

We worked with a number of different organizations and individuals to craft this legislation. Parents who had lost their children to overdose became our most passionate spokespeople. One of the parents was a former Chicago police captain. He worked alongside us, un¬derstanding that saving a life was more important than arresting and prosecuting someone with a drug problem.

It was hard work. Our coalition was small, but we had partners who provided valuable legislative support and we chose our sponsors carefully. Most importantly, we made it clear: No one should die because someone was afraid to call 911. And because of our efforts to pass Good Samaritan in Illinois, now they won’t have to be afraid.

Kathie Kane-Willis is the director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, a DPA grantee, which played a leading role in the 2012 passage of Illinois’ 911 Good Samaritan law.

Drug Overdose