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Editorial: Immunity for 911 Calls; N.H. Proposal Would Save Lives

We wish we could say that there’s a common-sense proposal before the New Hampshire Legislature that holds great promise for saving lives and could be enacted at no cost, but that’s not entirely accurate. So we’ll say this: There’s a common sense proposal before the Legislature that holds great promise for savings lives, but it will entail forgoing prosecution of some people who break drug and alcohol laws.

Still, it sounds like an excellent trade-off, and we hope New Hampshire lawmakers recognize it as such.

The bill would offer immunity to people who summon emergency help to respond to medical crises resulting from the use of drugs or alcohol. The assumption is that people — either those who are suffering from overdoses or are witnessing them — too often hesitate to call 911 out of fear of the legal consequences. What this measure would do is send a clear message: Don’t hesitate; just make the call that could save a life.

While many people grasp how many lives are ruined by substance abuse, it is all too easy to overlook the number of lives being lost. Drug-related deaths nationally now total more than 37,000 annually — double what they were just 10 years ago — and exceed the number of fatalities resulting from automobile accidents. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, most accidental drug deaths occur in the home and in the presence of others. Because these deaths generally occur one to three hours after an overdose, many might be prevented if medical help were requested quickly.

Studies indicate that most people who witness overdoses don’t summon help, according to the alliance, because they fear arrest and prosecution for violating drug laws.

Offering immunity is a relatively new approach. New Mexico was the first state to enact a so-called 911 Good Samaritan Law in 2007. Since then, about 10 states have adopted similar laws. The proposal in New Hampshire is simple and straightforward: “Any person who places a call through the enhanced 911 system to report a suspected drug or alcohol related emergency shall be immune from any civil or criminal liability for good faith conduct arising from or pertaining to the placing of the call.” That protection is extended to the person experiencing the emergency.

The proposal did not receive universal support, though. The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police opposed it during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.

“We’re concerned it may protect drug dealers,” Sunapee Police Chief David Cahill told the committee.

Well, yes it might, although it will more commonly protect drug users. But when criminal behavior leads to situations in which people’s lives are suddenly in danger, priorities need to be adjusted: You focus exclusively on saving lives. (If the police chiefs have trouble grasping this concept, it might help them to think of it as a reversal of the values behind the association’s ongoing raffle of firearms, in which concern about people’s lives take a back seat to the interests of fundraising.)

People in the Upper Valley are familiar with the principle thanks to former Dartmouth College President Jim Kim, who rightly faulted the town of Hanover for endangering lives by dispatching law enforcement along with ambulances in responding to underage drinking incidents that had become medical emergencies.

A few states have adopted 911 laws that address these concerns by offering limited immunity: extending protection for simple possession, for example, but not for more serious drug law violations. That would be better than no law at all, but clearly inferior to the blanket offer of immunity now proposed. The more hedged the offer becomes, the more it garbles what should be a clarion message: If someone’s life is in danger, call for help.