Good Samaritan Policies: Calling for Help Shouldn’t Be a Crime
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law
Over the past decade, several states have passed Medical Amnesty (or “Good Samaritan”) laws that provide limited immunity to the victim and to the caller for help in an emergency drug or alcohol overdose situation. Data shows that a call for help is made in fewer than 50% of cases involving a drug or alcohol overdose in America. Often, bystanders are afraid of being punished for drug possession or for being near drugs. Data indicates that by removing the barriers that prevent people from seeking help, lives can be saved.
In a hypothetical example using college students, a student may hesitate to call 911 when his or her friend passes out drunk at a party out of fear of academic consequences because both are underage drinkers on campus property. Similarly, a group of friends meeting off-campus at someone’s house with hard drugs present may attempt to revive their friend who has overdosed on heroin instead of calling the paramedics because they fear being arrested on drug-related charges. In both scenarios, the moments lost while bystanders decide whether or not to call for help could mean life or death for the victim.
Fear of punishment puts bystanders like these in a terrible situation. Rather than worrying about the possible legal or academic consequences of calling for help, the focus of bystanders in an emergency should be the prevention of the potentially fatal consequences for the drug or alcohol user if help is not called.
In 2010, California passed AB 1999, a medical amnesty law granting minors (under age 21) limited immunity from criminal prosecution for alcohol-related offenses if they were the victim or the person who called for help in an alcohol-induced emergency. In 2013, California passed AB 472, which extended this immunity to drug-related overdoses where medical assistance is sought. California is not the only state to do this; in fact, as of January 2015, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have passed some kind of medical amnesty law that covers exclusively either alcohol or all drugs. Additionally, over 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. have updated their university policies to include a campus-wide Good Samaritan policy protecting students from academic or disciplinary sanctions (though a drug treatment program is usually required) after calling for help in a drug or alcohol-related emergency. The rationale behind these policies is to remove the fear of getting in trouble when a life-or-death situation is at hand. These policies are supported by studies that show that these policies increase a student’s likelihood of seeking out help in these types of emergencies.
A 2006 article from the International Journal of Drug Policy found that calls for help at Cornell University increased after a medical amnesty policy was implemented. This article examined the factors—or “barriers”—cited for why help wasn’t called for in alcohol-related emergencies, and suggested that universities establish formal protocols or policies to clearly delineate to whom amnesty will be afforded and under what circumstances and which drug and alcohol violations will be covered. Additionally, universities should advertise their policy so that students are aware of it. Several papers have since confirmed the Cornell study’s findings.
Many schools in California have adopted a medical amnesty policy (albeit to different extents), including University of Southern California, the University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University, California State University, Stanislaus, and others. However, an alarming number of colleges in California are silent on the matter, including the entire UC system. This is surprising considering both California’s progressive reputation in the area of drug policy, and the fact that there is now statewide Good Samaritan legislation that one would think should apply to all campuses within the state. Yet, the fact that the University of California lacks protocols in this area makes it unclear to students whether their academic or disciplinary records will be affected if they call for help during an emergency overdose situation. This uncertainty—and this strange silence in an area directly related to student health and safety—is simply unacceptable.
In 2010, John Gibson, a student at UC Berkeley, was left permanently brain damaged after having a bad reaction to the drugs his roommate had given him at a student-housing complex. Rather than calling for help immediately, his roommate and another bystander delayed calling 911 for several hours after Gibson’s symptoms began and instead tried performing CPR. These students feared school sanctions. Unfortunately, it was too late for John—by the time the paramedics came, he had already lost too much oxygen to his brain to allow for any recovery of function. His mother sued the University of California Regents and the Berkeley Student Cooperative, the housing complex where Gibson lived at the time, for discouraging its students from calling for help except as a last resort. The suit claimed that the university’s policies were to blame, and that the school had a responsibility to protect its students if it knew that drug use is common on campus. The case settled for over $1 million before going to trial, but rather than adopting a campus-wide medical amnesty policy to encourage students to call for help in similar future circumstances, UC Berkeley responded by simply converting the co-op where Gibson lived into a “drug-free” living space. This nominal title does nothing to address the underlying problem, nor will it help to protect other students from suffering through what Gibson did.
Using a cost-benefit analysis, the costs of implementing a Good Samaritan policy on campus are minuscule while the benefits are tremendous. The costs involve administrative work such as drafting a new policy and deciding how the policy will operate. The students pushing for the policy change can do the latter. These students can prepare draft language already written with facts and data to support it and present this draft to administrators. The only other cost of implementing a Good Samaritan policy is sacrificing an ideological position that drugs and underage drinking should be forbidden on campus. The latter idealistic stance ignores the fact that drugs and alcohol will exist on campus regardless of school policies, and ignores the fact that human life is more valuable than a commitment to prohibitionism.
UC Irvine needs a Good Samaritan policy, as do the rest of the UC schools (all of which have a grade of “C” or “D” according to SSDP’s Campus Drug and Alcohol Policy Gradebook, available at ssdp.org/school-policies/). That is why Students for Sensible Drug Policy at UCI Law is embarking on a campaign to implement a new campus policy. We have begun to research UCI’s and other schools’ policies and procedures regarding medical amnesty. We plan to engage with the campus community, gather signatures for petitions, draft the policy language, and work with university administrations to accomplish this goal. We hope to work alongside other SSDP chapters from our sister UC schools to eventually bring the matter to the Board of Regents. We believe that all campuses within the University of California system deserve equally compassionate medical amnesty policies, and that these policies should reflect state law. The reason is simple: calling for help shouldn’t be a crime and can save lives.
To see SSDP’s Campus Gradebook, visit http://ssdp.org/school-policies/