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Good Samaritan law needed in crusade against opioid overdoses

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As I watch Governor Ducey declare a statewide health emergency in response to the opioid overdose epidemic, I feel that it is my duty to speak out. Having spent decades as a deputy sheriff, undercover officer, police chief, and EMT, I have seen young people die tragic deaths from overdoses, and I have seen how those tragedies weigh on the victims’ families, as well as officers and paramedics. Fortunately, the governor’s opioid commission is working to prevent and treat addiction. But, to save lives long enough to get our young people into treatment, state leaders have to understand what I saw on the ground as an undercover officer.

Some years back, while gathering evidence against a heroin dealer, I pooled money with several “friends” to purchase an eighth of an ounce. I followed them into an abandoned home, where they had pulled two couches into a V so we could pass the drugs without getting up. The first two shot up with little result, yelled that we had been ripped off, and handed the drugs across the couch to a slight blond girl, probably 16 years old. The batch must have been mixed poorly, because the moment she shot up, her eyes rolled back and she fought to breathe. Her friends fled because they knew if they called the police, they’d face arrest on drug charges. I ran to find a pay phone and called 911, but I didn’t return to help because it would have blown months of work on the case, which I hoped would prevent this exact tragedy from happening to more people. I found out later that by the time the paramedics arrived, they were too late to revive her.

Friends fleeing the scene of an overdose is common. The most commonly cited reason for not calling 911 is fear of arrest or punishment by law enforcement. After serving for years as a sheriff’s deputy, I can attest that their fear is justified. Law enforcement is focused on tracking down the dealer, so we threaten users with the most serious offenses possible to pressure them to reveal their dealer.

Fortunately, 40 states have stopped friends from fleeing an overdose by passing 911 Good Samaritan laws, which protect someone from prosecution if they call 911 to save a life. Studies show that in states with Good Samaritan laws, first responders are indeed receiving those “friend” calls so they can arrive at the victim’s side and administer Narcan while they can still be saved. Based on the study results, if Arizona had passed this law last year, we could have already saved 100 lives.

I am sharing my own painful story of fleeing overdose because I hope it will encourage our lawmakers to act on this public health emergency. Please take a stand against these needless deaths in our communities by supporting a 911 Good Samaritan Law.

— Jay Fleming lives in Dolan Springs. He served as an undercover officer in Washington state, deputy sheriff in four Montana counties, police chief in Potlatch, Idaho, and EMT in Los Angeles.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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