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Illinois Laws Do Not Protect Overdose Victims Who Need Medical Help

  • Synopsis: Published: 2010-08-29 - Drug users facing an overdose often avoid getting needed medical help for themselves or others because they fear criminal prosecution. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Albert L. Wysocki.

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Drug users facing an overdose often avoid getting needed medical help for themselves or others because they fear criminal prosecution. Two states now have "Good Samaritan" laws protecting drug users.

The Chicago area, including the collar counties, is currently in the midst of a heroin boom. According to a recent report from Roosevelt University, the metro area led the nation in cases of people with heroin problems using emergency rooms--a number 50 percent higher than New York, which ranked second.

Yet the problem may be even greater, as many users of heroin and other drugs are reluctant to use emergency medical services out of fear that they will be arrested on drug charges.

In 2006, a man in St. Charles died when his friends, unable to revive him from a heroin overdose, left him in a public park. Experts say the man would have lived if he had been taken to a hospital. In seeking to avoid prosecution for drugs themselves, his friends were later charged with drug-induced homicide, and both are now in prison.

What can be done to prevent these sorts of deaths? Two states, Washington and New Mexico, have new laws on their books that provide certain immunities from prosecution for reporting overdoses or seeking medical attention for an overdose.

These laws, which shield drug users from criminal prosecution, are sometimes referred to as Good Samaritan laws. Illinois already has a Good Samaritan Act on the books, but this law focuses exclusively on civil liability, not criminal liability.

The Illinois Legislature has considered bills similar to those in Washington and New Mexico during the last two legislative sessions, but neither bill has passed. One bill that did pass last year makes the administration of opiate antidotes (such as would be used to prevent heroin overdose) open to more people, not just medical professionals. The law provides immunity from prosecution for dispensing or administering heroin antidotes in an emergency without a license, and allows prescriber's to provide the antidote to patients whom they feel can understand the instructions and administer it in an emergency.

Yet beyond providing some drug users with an emergency antidote, Illinois provides no criminal protection for drug users who have not been given an antidote and want to seek medical help in an emergency.

It is time to reconsider this approach in Illinois. Laws should be designed to protect public safety and welfare - not to provide barriers to care for those in need of medical attention. A Good Samaritan law preventing criminal prosecution would help to ensure the welfare of people in Illinois, and the state legislature should take a careful look at this issue.

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