On New Year's Day 2007, Patrick McCarthy's 16-year-old daughter, Danielle, died of a drug overdose. She'd been partying in Seattle and Edmonds with friends and got sick after taking two doses of Ecstasy. Her friends did not call 911. She grew nauseated, became incoherent and drifted in and out of consciousness. At one point, Danielle had a seizure, felt cold to the touch and pleaded for help. Her friends finally drove her to a hospital, where she died – eight hours after her first symptoms and five and a half hours after the seizure.
It was obvious that Danielle was in trouble. Someone even looked up the symptoms of "Ecstasy overdose" online. Why didn't anyone call 911 for help? As 19-year-old Ryan Mills, the host of one of the parties, told investigators, "We were all scared because … we didn't want anyone to get in trouble," The Stranger news weekly reported in January 2008.
Since then, the man who admitted to supplying the drugs that killed Danielle, David Morris, was convicted of controlled substance homicide and sentenced to more than two years in prison. One of Danielle's friends, Donalydia Huertas, 17 at the time of Danielle's death, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to serve time in juvenile detention until she's 21.
A Growing Problem
In cases of life-threatening drug overdoses, people usually have several hours after symptoms appear before it's too late for them to be saved. Police typically accompany ambulances on 911 drug overdose calls. And after the police ask some questions, the very people who called may be arrested and thrown into jail. Several studies have indicated that up to half the people who witness drug overdoses in the U.S. don't call 911.
One 2005 study, conducted by Melissa Tracy of the New York Academy of Medicine's Center for Urban Epidemiologic Studies, and published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, explored the high rate of overdose deaths among drug users in New York City. "Fear of police response was the most commonly cited reason for not calling or delaying before calling for help," Tracy noted. People die because of this reluctance to call – and many of those deaths are avoidable.
In 2007 – the last year for which firm data from the state Department of Health are available – drug overdoses killed 761 in Washington state; that number has more than doubled in less than a decade. The state does not break down how many overdose and poisoning deaths occur among teens and pre-teens, but there's no doubt they're part of the picture.
In its 2006 Healthy Youth Survey, the Department of Health estimated the following percentages of youth who reported using a painkiller such as OxyContin or Percocet to get high in the past 30 days: four percent of eighth-graders (about 3,600 students), 10 percent of 10th-graders (about 9,300 students), and 12 percent of 12th-graders (about 10,900 students).
Good Samaritan Laws
A few years ago, New Mexico had the highest overdose death rate in the nation and recognized a need to encourage people witnessing overdoses to seek help. "We found that people were so afraid of being arrested, they were actually just leaving (overdose victims) alone," says Reena Szczepanski, director of that state's Drug Policy Alliance.
In 2007, New Mexico passed a "911 Good Samaritan Law" that shields people from prosecution for drug possession if they seek medical services for a drug overdose. The legislation doesn't protect people from being prosecuted for drug trafficking, and it doesn't interfere with law enforcement protocols. It just promises that the people who may be using drugs along with the overdose victim won't be charged for possession if they seek help for the victim.
Although it's too early for data to show whether the program has been effective, a New Mexico Health Department official says he's talked to enough people on the street to believe that it will be worthwhile. "They would say, ‘I don't trust the cops,' and, ‘I won't call, because I don't want to be thrown in jail,'" said Dominick Zurlo, harm reduction program manager for the New Mexico Department of Health's infectious disease bureau.
Zurlo thinks that strict enforcement of the 911 Good Samaritan Law will convince people that it's safe to call for help. Besides, he says, "Even if it saves one life, it's all worth it."
It's certainly worth it on college campuses. Good Samaritan policies are in place on almost 100 campuses throughout the U.S. (So far, Gonzaga University is the only one in Washington.) The primary goal of such policies is to enable students to make the decision to help when they would otherwise hesitate. Proponents say such policies send the message that campus officials care more about keeping students alive than punishing them, according to Micah Daigle, associate director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an international grassroots network of students concerned about drug abuse.
In some cases, Good Samaritan policies appear to have helped increase the number of overdose reports to emergency responders. For example, a 2006 study in The International Journal of Drug Policy found that emergency calls doubled after Cornell University enacted its Good Samaritan policy in 2002.
Daigle says that in his experience, the main reason people hesitate to call authorities is that they don't want to get a friend who has used drugs in trouble – particularly if the friend doesn't appear to be in serious danger.
Many young people who have witnessed a drug overdose – whether or not they acted to get help – are averse to talking about what happened. (Seattle's Child's efforts to reach friends who were with Danielle McCarthy the night of her overdose were unsuccessful. They all appear to have unlisted phone numbers, and Donalydia Huertas's attorney did not return an e-mailed request for help getting in contact with any of Danielle's friends.)
Legislation in Washington
This year, Washington's Legislature is considering proposals that would provide limited immunity from prosecution for people who call for help when they witness or experience a drug overdose. Half a dozen other states are also considering such legislation.
It's a simple notion: Saving lives is more important than punishing drug users. Both the Washington House and Senate bills recognize the fact that the No. 1 reason people don't call 911 in overdose situations is fear of arrest or police involvement, and it reflects an important policy decision: Moral judgments should not stand in the way of adopting practical measures that will save lives.
With some exceptions – manufacturing or intending to manufacture the drug, selling or intending to sell the drug for profit – people wouldn't be prosecuted as a result of seeking the medical assistance. As of early March, both bills had made it out of their respective committees and await scheduling for consideration by the full House and Senate.
Danielle McCarthy's dad, for one, is not in favor of the legislation; he thinks that some people won't call for help even with such laws on the books. In the two years since his daughter's death, Patrick McCarthy has tried to channel his grief constructively. He started a Web site called Friends Don't Let Friends Die (www.friendsdontletfriendsdie.com), where he's posted information about various states' laws as well as stories about other teens who died of overdoses. He also talks to groups of teenagers, cautioning them about using drugs as well as associating with people who don't have their best interests in mind.
In the end, perhaps Dominick Zurlo expresses what's at the core of both the proposed legislation and McCarthy's philosophy: "Really, what it comes down to is if you've got someone potentially dying, you've got to make the call."
Neal Starkman is a strategic communications specialist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which has lobbied for legislation that would provide limited immunity to witnesses of drug overdoses if they’d also been using drugs.
Make the Call, Save a Life
The message is simple: “If you’re ever in a situation in which you believe that someone is in trouble from a drug overdose, get help. Don’t debate it with others. Don’t hesitate. Don’t think about anything other than saving a life.”
• “A Death in Edmonds,” The Stranger, www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=474219
• “Circumstances of Witnessed Drug Overdose in New York City: Implications for Intervention,” www.uic.edu/com/mdphd/Retreat_2007/Tracy.pdf
• “Poisoning and Drug Overdose,” Washington Department of Health, www.doh.wa.gov/hsqa/emstrauma/injury/pubs/icpg/DOH530090Poison.pdf
New Mexico’s 911 Good Samaritan Law: www.drugpolicy.org/about/stateoffices/newmexico/911/
• “Safety First: A Medical Amnesty Approach to Alcohol Poisoning at a U.S. University,” www.gannett.cornell.edu/downloads/AOD/SafetyFirstPdf.pdf
HELPFUL WEB SITES
• Students for Sensible Drug Policy: www.ssdp.org
• Friends Don’t Let Friends Die: www.friendsdontletfriendsdie.com
• NIDA for Teens: http://teens.drugabuse.gov/index.php