Immunity from prosecution for those reporting a drug overdose is the law in 40 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Simply stated, if you act in good faith in calling 911 to help someone in danger, you won’t face criminal charges for simple possession of drugs or paraphernalia.
These “Good Samaritan” laws vary somewhat by state, but they were prompted by a common need — to address the rising death toll from an opioid epidemic. One side-effect of a ready supply of heroin, fentanyl and pharmaceutical painkillers is the reluctance of people to pick up the phone and call 911 in a suspected overdose, for fear of arrest and prosecution.
Coupled with the use of naloxone by first responders, immunity has saved thousands of lives — even as the epidemic continues to surge in Pennsylvania and other hot spots around the nation.
The success of this approach has raised another question: If it’s effective against opioids, why not extend it to America’s drug of choice, alcohol? Especially on college campuses, where binge drinking is prevalent?
In Northampton County, that immunity is now being offered to students at four colleges and universities, under a program initiated by District Attorney John Morganelli and the Center for Humanistic Change Inc.
In a news conference this week, Morganelli said students will not face criminal charges if they call 911 seeking help for someone who is dangerously drunk. It applies to those acting in good faith, even if they are under 21 and have been drinking.
Immunity in such cases is up to a prosecutor. Morganelli says he’s extending it to college students to save lives, recalling the alcohol-related death of a Lafayette College freshman last year. The need to educate students about getting help for impaired or injured colleagues was amplified, too, by the 2017 death of Timothy Piazza, a Penn State student from Hunterdon County.
This policy borrows some of the thinking that went into the now-abandoned Amethyst Initiative — a national discussion of laws governing underage and binge drinking on college campuses back in 2008. Presidents of three Lehigh Valley institutions — Lafayette, Moravian and Muhlenberg — endorsed the initiative then, which advocated lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18. That proposal failed, predictably.
Doing nothing hasn’t exactly worked, either.
Education, awareness and cracking down on fraternities that violate alcohol and hazing policies is having an effect — but it’s not going to eradicate dangerous drinking and the culture that encourages it.
In addition to reaching out to college students, Morganelli and the Center for Humanistic Change are trying to get alcohol retailers involved, to raise awareness at the point of purchase. Sonia Oliveria, the center’s prevention program specialist, brought up the education campaign idea to Morganelli during a college alcohol summit two months ago.
We hope Morganelli’s offer of immunity doubles down on the success rate in opioid cases, and that other prosecutors embrace it as well.
And don’t forget, it’s not just college students who drink to excess. Immunity should be extended to anyone seeking to save a life from potential overdose — regardless of age, level of education or the drug involved.
—The Easton Express-Times