As More Die From Opioids, Will Arizona Pass A 911 Good Samaritan Law?
When Brett Morrison got a phone call from his mother saying there was a warrant for his arrest, he was puzzled. At the time, he had been sober for more than two months.
“My mind is going all these different places like what did I do? I have no idea what I did,” Morrison recalled while he and his mother sat around the kitchen table in the north Phoenix home where he grew up.
What Brett Morrison had done more than a year before was call 911.
He was living in Prescott and using heroin as he had for years when the guy who had sold him the drugs overdosed in the house.
“The cops came. They asked me how do you know he’s overdosing on heroin? I said, ‘Because I took it and I flushed it down the toilet,’” Brett Morrison said
The police were able to save the man’s life with the overdose reversal drug naloxone. Brett Morrison didn’t think much about the incident after that.
“However, a year later, I get a charge called hindering prosecution,” he said.
“I thought, how can you get arrested for calling 911? I had no idea that this kind of thing was happening,” Janice Morrison, a retired high school teacher, said.
Brett Morrison wanted to fight the charge, but he was already on probation and had gone to prison for selling pot. Losing the case would have meant prison time so he took the plea agreement, instead.
Stories like this come up a lot in the support group Janice Morrison helps run for families dealing with addiction. Many times, no one calls 911 for help out of fear of prosecution, she said.
“You just hear it over and over and over. And people should never ever hesitate,” she said. “You cannot get that person into recovery if that person is dead.”
Brett Morrison, 35, is sober and working in the recovery industry, helping people like him. And he doesn’t blame anyone for the incident. He was using drugs after all.
“It did help hold me accountable, however, it’s about saving this person’s life, the only thing that matters at that moment,” he said.
This question facing drug users — do you call 911 — has increasingly become a public health concern as the number of opioid overdoses has skyrocketed. Lawmakers in Arizona have tried unsuccessfully in recent years to pass what’s known as a 911 Good Samaritan law. It ensures someone who calls 911 because of a drug related overdose cannot be charged for possession or use of a controlled substance.
About 40 states in the United States have some version of that law, which is designed to get more people to report overdoses by removing the fear of prosecution.
"I introduced that bill two years ago. It did not receive a committee hearing,” Assistant House Minority Leader Dr. Randy Friese, a Democrat from Tucson, said. “Do I think Arizona is even close to that? No. We need the political pressure on the majority who are in charge of assigning bills to committees and allowing things to move forward to begin to say this could be a solution that saves lives."
The timing for that solution may be ripe.
Gov. Doug Ducey has made the opioid epidemic a major priority, declaring a statewide emergency.
Just last month, the Arizona Department of Health Services released an ambitious plan to reduce opioid related deaths by 25 percent in the next five years.
One of the recommendations? Enact a 911 Good Samaritan law. But this approach still challenges the philosophy of some conservatives in Arizona’s law enforcement community.
Sheila Polk, a Republican, is the top prosecutor in Yavapai County where Brett Morrison was charged.
“Is this a feel good Band-Aid that doesn’t really accomplish what we want to see, which is people embracing sobriety as opposed to encouraging further drug use and making it easier to use drugs?” Polk said.
Polk said people in her community aren’t pushing for a law that gives drug users immunity, either.
“Instead, what I hear from a lot of people is it’s actually that contact with the criminal justice system that presents them with the hammer and the stick,” she said.
As for the claim that people are dying because no one wants to call during an overdose, Polk said that makes a "nice soundbite."
“I don’t know that folks who are using heroin or have overdosed on heroin are even in that frame of mind,” she said.
A study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research could not prove that Good Samaritan laws on their own bring down opioid deaths, but it did find the estimated effects could be "substantial," especially in a state like Arizona with laws that make naloxone easily available.
“In fact, it’s literally the least that we can do,” said attorney Craig Rosenstein, who is the incoming president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice. “If our goal is to increase prosecutions this is a bad law; if it’s to save lives, then it’s a good one.”
He said Arizona lags behind other states on drug policy reform, making drug users more fearful of law enforcement.
“We have a state that has very draconian mandatory minimum sentencing so people are legitimately looking at prison time and we don’t want anything to dissuade them from calling for help,” he said.
There’s no new legislation on the table yet, but some state lawmakers, including the Republican Chair of the House Health Committee Heather Carter, are considering it. A spokesperson for Gov. Ducey said he’s open to the idea, but will need to hear more before taking a position.
Janice Morrison is already gearing up to make her case for the law — again.
“This is right now our No. 1 health crisis. It has surpassed car accidents, so something has to be done," she said.
On that, there’s broad consensus.