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If someone had asked me what the number one cause of accidental death was in the United States, I wouldn’t have hesitated to say car accidents were the culprit. When we hear the word ‘accident’, it isn’t much of a stretch to think only of car accidents, hence the name. But a missing piece of the puzzle is often cast aside. That incredibly growing puzzle piece is death caused by overdose, which now holds the not so coveted crown of the number one cause of accidental death in the United States.

In a 2008 study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, death caused by drug poisonings became the number one cause of accidental death, with motor vehicle deaths now second. Since 1980, the number of deaths caused by drug poisonings increased six times (1980-6,100 to 36,500 in 2008), and 77% of these poisonings were unintentional.  The drugs that are causing the most overdoses aren’t illicit drugs, but prescription painkillers, particularly oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone. Needless to say, we’ve got a problem, but what can be done to circumvent this rising and deadly trend?

Despite our best efforts, it’s impossible to prevent all overdoses from occurring, so we need the proper tools to help save the lives of those experiencing an overdose.  One of these tools is to make sure EMT, law enforcement, and first responders have an available supply of Narcan/Naloxone, an anti-opioid medication that reserves the effects of an opioid overdose, and have the knowledge on how to administer Naloxone to the person who is overdosing. But maybe one of the most important factors in saving the lives of those overdosing isn’t Naloxone alone, but something as seemingly simple as calling 911 when one witnesses an overdose.

However, calling 911 might not be as simple as you think. In 39 states, including North Carolina and the entire South, there is no immunity to the caller who seeks medical attention during an overdose. Essentially, a person who calls for help when they witness someone overdosing can be arrested for possession when law enforcement arrives on the scene. This lack of immunity affects a person’s decision to call 911 when they witness an overdose, and can leave the person overdosing with a late response to medical help or can leave the person dead from an overdose. In the South, this is a particularly alarming problem, as sales of prescription pills are highest in the Southeastern and Northwestern regions of the United States. With prescription painkillers causing the most unintentional overdoses, the South has a real stake in the problem.

11 states and over 90 college campuses across the United States have some form of immunity to callers in search of medical help when witnessing an overdose. This immunity is through laws called ‘Call 911 Good Samaritan laws’. Having these types of laws in practice helps gets those experiencing an overdose to care and enables those witnessing an overdose to call 911 without hesitation. Ultimately, the ability for the person witnessing an overdose to make that call for help without fear of being arrested enables the person experiencing an overdose to have a chance to recover from the overdose quicker.

With the passage of Call 911 Good Samaritan laws across the United States, no longer will people fear of being arrested for seeking help. No longer will the person overdosing be left to die without care coming. Call 911 Good Samaritan laws are just good practice and something we all need to strive for. The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition seeks to change the law here in North Carolina, and we need all the voices at the table to make that a reality.

For more information, visit North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

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