Austin Padaric was in the company of five or six other people at a party when he overdosed on crushed morphine tablets and lost consciousness. No one called 911 until late the next morning; the 17-year-old from Heidelberg, Ont., died in hospital six days later.
That was in April, 2013. On Monday, Ron McKinnon, the Liberal MP for Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, tabled the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act in the House of Commons. If passed, the bill would mean that people who call 911 to report an overdose cannot be charged with drug possession offences related to the incident.
"This means that people can take action without fear of penalty," Mr. McKinnon said while introducing the legislation. "Hopefully, they'll pick up the phone and save someone's son or daughter. I hope all parliamentarians will back this bill."
The proposed legislation comes as Canada grapples with an increase in deaths from illicit drug overdoses, in part attributed to the emergence of fentanyl in the black market. British Columbia had 465 illicit drug overdose deaths last year – a 27-per-cent increase from 2014 – and the powerful synthetic opioid was detected in nearly one-third of them.
The exemption would apply to anyone who is at the scene upon the arrival of medical personnel or law enforcement assistance. It would not apply to offences such as trafficking or driving while impaired. Currently, arrests in such circumstances are largely at the discretion of responding officers.
Quin Kurtz, 22, of Elmira, Ont., pleaded guilty to manslaughter, production of a controlled substance and trafficking of a controlled substance in relation to the death of Mr. Padaric. He was sentenced last month to two years less a day in prison and three years' probation. The court heard that Mr. Kurtz had supplied the teen with the morphine and had warned others not to call 911, putting an overheating Mr. Padaric into a bathtub of cold water instead.
Mr. Padaric's mother, Christine Padaric, called the proposed legislation "a great idea," saying it was clear that other partygoers did not call police due to fear of ramifications.
"They're young people. They fear even the parents knowing [about drug use]," Ms. Padaric said in an interview on Monday.
If the bill is passed, she added, "there really needs to be a lot of education and publicity about it in order for the word to get through to the young people, because that's really who's affected by this – the people who are afraid of what's going to happen to them if they're caught."
A 2012 report by the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council found that, of 450 past and current recreational drug users surveyed, 46 per cent would either call 911 and leave the victim or not call 911 at all. Of those people, 58 per cent said the criminal justice system was the barrier. Other fears included breaching probation and losing custody of children.
The survey asked people what happened the most recent time they had witnessed an overdose. The report said 911 was called just 46 per cent of the time.
The proposed legislation comes two years after the House Standing Committee on Health recommended an amendment to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to allow Good Samaritan laws.
Michael Parkinson, a co-ordinator of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council and a co-author of the 2012 report, said fear of criminal prosecution has been a "clear barrier" in reporting illicit drug overdoses, adding that the legislation, if passed, will save lives.
"It's long-overdue and has a high likelihood of saving lives and reducing injuries during a time when Canada is experiencing the worst prescription drug crisis in history," he said. "Most provinces are experiencing record-levels of opioid overdoses and indications are it will get worse before it gets better."
Mr. Parkinson stressed that a person experiencing an overdose is dependent on Good Samaritans, witnesses and bystanders.
The Vancouver Police Department has for years had a policy of not responding to drug overdoses, leaving paramedics to handle them, with the goal of encouraging people to call 911 without fear, Sergeant Randy Fincham said.
"We only attend to a very small percentage of overdoses, and that's where paramedics feel that their safety's at risk or there's something suspicious going on with the incident," he said.
In the United States, 34 states and the District of Columbia have some form of Good Samaritan overdose legislation.
The bill will be read a second time at the next sitting of the House.