A Second Chance

A new kind of medical amnesty law is saving the lives of drug users.

Tanya and Taylor Smith, before Taylor's death from an overdose.

From left to right, Tanya and Taylor Smith, before Taylor’s death from an overdose.

Photo courtesy Tessie Castillo

Last August authorities found the body of Georgia police officer Tanya Smith’s 20-year-old daughter, Taylor, dead of a drug overdose. On the night of her death, Taylor and a few friends smoked methamphetamine in an apartment in Jasper, Georgia. When Taylor began struggling to breathe, her companions feared that calling 911 might summon the police. They tried to revive her themselves by throwing her in a cold shower. When Taylor died, they dumped her body in a roadside ditch near a trailer and fled. It was a terrible end to Taylor’s two-year battle with drug addiction.

After her daughter’s death, Smith fought hard to pass a new law to address situations like this, in which scared witnesses don’t call for help because of the specter of drugs. The resulting 911 Medical Amnesty Law, which Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed last month, encourages people to seek help for an overdose by granting limited immunity from some drug charges. That makes 15 states to enact medical amnesty laws since New Mexico passed the first one in 2007. There’s evidence that such laws can save lives. A study in Washington state, which passed its medical amnesty law in 2010, found that 88 percent of surveyed opiate users said they would be more likely to call 911 to report an overdose as a result of the law.

The argument against medical amnesty laws is that they protect drug dealers from prosecution and prevent police officers from enforcing drug laws. But medical amnesty does not let dealers off the hook. By limiting the quantity of drugs you can get immunity for, all 15 states with these laws have excluded dealers from protection. For example, in Georgia, a person can be charged with drug trafficking if he possesses 4 or more grams of heroin or 28 or more grams of cocaine. The new medical amnesty law only protects a person who possesses less than 4 grams of any solid narcotic. In every state to pass these laws, powerful sheriff and police chief associations have supported the efforts. In Florida, law enforcement even spearheaded the campaign for medical amnesty in 2012. Detective Gary Martin of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office explains, “When most people witness an overdose, they’ll try all kinds of bizarre, dangerous ways to revive a person based off things they see on TV. We want them to call 911.”

Georgia’s new law also expands access to naloxone, which can reverse the effects of an overdose. (It works like the EpiPen.) Paramedics have used naloxone for decades; now the idea is to put it in the hands of laypeople by shielding them from civil liability if they give naloxone to an overdose victim and something goes wrong. (That’s rare.) Thanks in part to liability protections in 911 medical amnesty laws, more than 10,000 laypeople across the country have now used it to reverse overdoses. A year before Tanya Smith’s daughter died, naloxone saved her from a heroin overdose.*

In her daughter’s memory, Smith will soon launch a program to equip her co-officers, at the Holly Springs Police Department, with naloxone and train them on responding to an overdose. She hopes to see results like those achieved by a program that the Quincy Police Department in Massachusetts introduced in 2010. Since then, Quincy officers responding to 911 calls have administered naloxone 234 times to overdose victims who were not breathing but still alive. All but four of them survived. That’s what medical amnesty laws are about—a second chance.

*Update, May 8, 2014: This piece has been updated to clarify that naloxone saved Taylor Smith from a heroin overdose. It does not reverse the effects of methamphetamine.