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The Globe and Mail

To cut down on overdose deaths, save the Good Samaritans

Globe and Mail writer Andre Picard.

The ever-worsening opioids epidemic is forcing public-health officials and lawmakers to get creative and to finally recognize that the war-on-drugs mentality is ineffective and counterproductive.

In recent months, the soaring number of overdoses from heroin, fentanyl and new synthetic opioids like carfentanil (an elephant tranquillizer) has generated a lot of headlines.

What has got a lot less attention is the fact that many people are hesitant to call 911 when they witness an overdose. The reason is simple: Drug users rarely use alone but when things go wrong, there is a reluctance to contact authorities for fear of being busted.

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In other words, people die because those who could help them fear criminal prosecution.

The obvious answer to this conundrum is to grant amnesty to Good Samaritans.

That is the theory behind Bill C-224, the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, a private member's bill sponsored by Ron McKinnon, the Liberal backbencher representing the B.C. riding of Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam.

The proposed legislation, which is now being studied in parliamentary committee before it is returned to the House of Commons for a final vote, would amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to exempt from charges of possession anyone who seeks emergency medical or law-enforcement assistance for themselves or another person overdosing on a controlled substance.

This type of legislation is long overdue. It was proposed in 2014 by the House standing committee on health, but it got nowhere under Stephen Harper's government, which consistently took an ineffective "tough-on-crime" approach to any drug-related issue.

When someone overdoses on drug like fentanyl, it can be reversed, but they need to be helped quickly by paramedics or others using drugs like naloxone. But time is of the essence.

It is rare for any bill, let alone a private member's bill, to get unanimous support of all parties, but there isn't an MP who hasn't seen and heard of the ravages of opioids in their riding.

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In presenting his bill to the House of Commons earlier this summer, Mr. McKinnon shared heart-wrenching stories of teenagers who had failed to call 911 and watched their friends die because they had feared being charged themselves.

In fact, a study by the Waterloo Crime Prevention Centre found that fewer than half of people who witness an overdose would call for help for fear of the repercussions.

The new law, if adopted, would protect people from prosecution for possession of drugs, but not from charges of impaired driving or trafficking.

As Mr. McKinnon said, the legal protection would "mean a scared young person is less likely to look the other way."

A similar amnesty exists for people who use drugs in supervised injection sites like Insite. Police will not charge people who have drugs in the facility, but can still do so on the streets.

Good Samaritan 911 laws (as they are known) that protect people reporting overdoses have already been enacted in 34 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, as well as across Europe.

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These types of laws (in Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba) also exist to protect other sorts of Good Samaritans from lawsuits and criminal charges – for example, those who step in to perform CPR on someone who has suffered cardiac arrest, or try to assist the victim of a car crash.

People who overdose are no less worthy of the benevolent assistance of strangers.

Of course, a Good Samaritan 911 law is only a small piece of the larger puzzle. But it is a welcome sign that attitudes are shifting.

The opioids epidemic is causing untold harm: About 14,000 overdose deaths a year in the United States and an estimated 2,000 in Canada, not to mention the impacts on families, communities and economies.

A broad range of interventions are required to tackle this issue, from getting a handle on inappropriate prescribing through to providing appropriate treatment to those who are addicted. (And, of course, we need to find better ways of treating people's pain in the first place.)

But a key part of the solution is embracing harm-reduction measures, and not losing sight of the fact that drug abuse and addiction are public-health issues, and that compassion should be welcome, not treated as a criminal act.

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