When most people picture dangerous drugs, they probably aren’t thinking of the fatal cocktail of prescriptions right in their own medicine cabinets. Yet over the past decade, largely due to an increase in the misuse of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin, drug overdose deaths have quadrupled nationwide. Overdose currently claims 38,000 lives a year, more than auto accidents and murder combined.
In response to a rising epidemic of deaths across the country, 13 states and the District of Columbia have enacted 911 Good Samaritan laws to encourage people to call 911 to report an overdose. Although most drug overdoses occur in the presence of at least one witness, fear of police involvement deters more than half of witnesses from seeking help. 911 Good Samaritan laws aim to remove this fear by granting limited immunity for some drug possession or paraphernalia charges to people who experience a drug overdose and to those who call for help. In some states, the immunities extend further to cover parole violations, underage drinking, or other minor infractions. However, to date not one 911 Good Samaritan law has included protections for undocumented immigrants, a group with many reasons to fear calling 911 and potentially summoning police.
Drug overdose is a growing threat to undocumented immigrants in particular, who tend to work at difficult, labor-intensive jobs and may take prescription or non-prescription opiates to manage pain. Knocking down a couple beers after work is also common among day laborers, who unfortunately may not realize what a deadly combination painkillers and alcohol can be. Mixing alcohol with other drugs, especially pain relievers, is responsible for approximately 20 percent of overdose-related hospitalizations in young adults.
“Because the Latino community is often misinformed of the dangers of prescription drugs and health education is often scarce in many rural areas, overdoses have become inevitable,” explains Judith Montenegro, director of community organizing for the Latino Commission on AIDS. “However, undocumented immigrants should be able to seek the help of law enforcement without fear of deportation. This fear only makes it more difficult for law enforcement to achieve the communities’ trust in order to do their job effectively.”
Given the increasing influence of the undocumented community in the United States, it is important to include them in discussions on overdose prevention and to consider amending existing laws to allow immunity from deportations to anyone who calls 911 to report an overdose. Eleven million people in the Unites States live with a fear of calling 911 to report a medical emergency, including accidental overdose. Alleviating that fear could go a long way towards turning back the tide of overdose deaths.
Good Samaritan laws are about protecting lives and ending the unnecessary criminalization of human beings, two goals also shared by immigration reform advocates. So while drug overdose and immigration reform continue to dominate the national consciousness, including immigration status in the list of immunities for 911 calls could be a win-win step in the right direction.
Tessie Castillo is the communications and advocacy coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.