‘Good Samaritan’ law expected to save lives
Makes calling 911 during overdose less intimidating
After being passed in the House of Commons this week, Good Samaritan legislation is set to become law in Canada, making it less intimidating for drug users to call 911 in an overdose emergency.
“I have no doubt this will save lives,” says Michael Parkinson, who works with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council and the Municipal Drug Strategies Coordinator’s Network of Ontario.
Thousands of people are dying of drug overdoses across Canada each year as a result of a deadly opioid crisis.
“We know that 911 is called less than half of the time (in these cases),” Parkinson said Wednesday. “And we know that a principal barrier is fear of entanglement with the criminal justice system.”
Supported by all parties, Bill C-224 will provide immunity from drug possession or breach charges to any one seeking emergency assistance for an overdose.
The legislation is set to receive royal assent early this month.
Other charges such as driving while impaired or drug trafficking will not fall under the exemption, blurry territory given that, under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act’s definition, trafficking can include “giving” someone drugs.
Ron McKinnon, the B.C. Liberal MP who sponsored the private member’s bill last year, uses the example of kids experimenting with drugs at a party. If a friend starts to overdose, he warned they might debate calling for help out of fear of getting in trouble.
“Time is life in a situation like this,” McKinnon argued last summer.
The law will also protect people who are breaching parole, probation or a court order by using or being around drugs; people who may worry that a 911 call to save a life could cost them their own freedom.
More than 734 people died of opioid-related causes in Ontario in 2015 alone, the equivalent of two people every day. Close to 50 of them were in Hamilton.
Experts say that death toll is on the rise, with the growing prominence of potent bootleg painkillers such as fentanyl and carfentanil, often mixed into other drugs.
“We all look around us and see … the carnage that is sweeping the nation in terms of overdose deaths,” McKinnon said. “While this is not going to solve the problem, it will reduce the impact of it. It’s one tool in a tool box. It will save lives and that’s the point.”
The next step will be to raise awareness.
Kirsten Mattison, director of controlled substances at Health Canada, told a senate committee in March, her office would be distributing promotional materials about the new law once it’s finalized.
Parkinson stresses that it’s not only important for drug users to understand their rights under the new law, but also social service agencies and police forces.
“The police enforcement agencies, prosecutors, defence lawyers — they are all part of the group of people that need to operationalize the act,” Parkinson says. “There’s no question this will save lives … now we just have to let people know about it.”
A man walks past a mural by street artist Smokey D. painted as a response to the fentanyl and opioid overdose crisis, in Vancouver, B.C., in December 2016. A wave of opioid overdoses has swept the nation.