Smart Solutions to Overdose Can Save Lives

A string of high profile celebrity deaths -- including Heath Ledger and Corey Haim -- have focused attention on accidental drug overdose as a national issue, but New Yorkers need little reminder of the crisis. Accidental overdose deaths in communities from Buffalo to Long Island have spurred discussions about how to save lives and have prompted an important reevaluation of our drug policies

Accidental overdose deaths from both illegal and legal drugs are rapidly increasing across the U.S. According to government data, overdose deaths in 2006 surpassed motor vehicle accidents in 16 states -- including New York, where just last year, nearly 1,400 people died of accidental drug overdose. Nearly 700 people died in New York City alone, making overdose the 4th leading cause of death after heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

New York lawmakers are now considering two very different approaches to address accidental overdose fatalities, but the proposals couldn't be more different: One bill will most certainly make the problem worse, while the other will likely save lives.

The Senate recently passed S. 6418, sponsored by Sen. Craig Johnson. This is the familiar "get tough" approach: if a person who consumes drugs dies, the person who sold those drugs would be charged with manslaughter. This proposal seeks to reduce overdose deaths by using harsh penalties to deter drug sales; unfortunately, it will neither reduce drug sales nor will it reduce overdose fatalities.

Here's why. First, New York already has harsh penalties for drug sales. Will tougher laws alone reduce drug sales? History says no. Not even the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws -- some of the harshest drug laws in the country -- could stop drug use or sales. As New Yorkers know, a criminal justice-focused approach is not an effective drug policy. That's why last year, legislators reformed those draconian laws and chose a new, health-focused approach. Today, New York's drug policies remain extremely tough for those who sell drugs, while moving us one step closer to addressing drug use as a health issue.

Second, overdoses are not instantly fatal. It often takes two or three hours before an overdose becomes fatal -- a short window period where emergency personnel can intervene to save a life. But most people don't call 911 when experiencing or witnessing an overdose. Why? Study after study has found that the number one reason people don't call emergency services in an overdose situation is fear of police involvement and prosecution.

This scenario plays out every day across New York and the nation -- and not just with legal and illegal opiates. Underage young people drinking alcohol too often avoid calling 911 when one of their friends needs help, because they fear the consequences of police involvement. Getting "tougher" will further discourage people from calling for emergency services precisely when those services are most needed. In short, when it comes to overdose, people don't call for help when it's needed for fear of ending up in a cop car instead of an ambulance.

The Assembly passed a smarter overdose prevention bill -- A.8147/S.5191, sponsored by Assembly Dick Gottfried and in the Senate by Sen. Tom Duane. This Good Samaritan bill encourages people to call 911 if they believe they're witnessing an alcohol or other drug overdose. How? By prioritizing saving lives over arrests for drug possession. The bill would reduce criminal liability for alcohol or drug possession if you call 911; it does not protect anyone from arrest or prosecution for drug sales. New Mexico and Washington have passed similar legislation; nearly a dozen states are considering following suit. And colleges across New York have enacted similar, campus-wide policies, because they work.

Earlier this year, the Long Island Minority AIDS Coalition (LIMAC), along with Long Island-based community stakeholders, convened a conference about health-based approaches to drug policy. Participants learned real and immediate tools for overdose prevention, including training over 50 Long Island residents on how to reverse an opiate overdose using Naloxone. The Coalition and Long Island parents have joined communities across New York in calling for the Senate to follow the Assembly and pass the Good Samaritan bill.

When addressing the overdose crisis, criminal justice system should not be our primary tool, especially when we know it reduces the likelihood of people calling for emergency medical help when it's most needed. "Get tough" proposals can make for good sound-bites, but are all too often bad policy, and can even make the problem worse. A smart solution like the heath based approach of Good Samaritan can help save lives, reduce accidental overdose fatalities, and build healthier communities. And that's something everyone in Albany can agree on.

Gabriel Sayegh and Evan Goldstein are, respectively, New York State Director and Policy Coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance,