Dear Governor Brown,
No other state in the country endures as many annual deaths from accidental drug overdose as California. In sheer numbers of lives lost, California bears the tragic, and embarrassing, distinction of being "number one." August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day and I'm hoping this is the day you will commit to leading us out of this needless tragedy.
Like so many of us, some of your friends have battled addiction for many years. I'm certain you're thankful that they're still here to keep fighting, keep trying to get it right. Your loved ones are still alive--you're lucky, and they're lucky. But this year alone, tens of thousands of American families won't share your good fortune. Their luck will run out. If recent national trends are any indication, by the year's end approximately 28,000 people will have died prematurely from a preventable fatal drug overdose. In 16 states, accidental drug overdose is the single leading cause of accidental death, claiming more lives than motor vehicle crashes. The majority of these deaths involve prescription opioid painkillers.
We urgently need your leadership on this issue right here and now. We need to let Californians know that solutions exist. We need to pass AB 472, the "911 Good Samaritan" overdose death prevention bill, and start a statewide conversation about the myriad solutions to the problem.
Tackling the problem of accidental fatal drug overdose is complicated. There isn't a single magic bullet that will save all lives. Of course we need to expand access to a range of affordable, effective drug treatment programs, including medications like methadone. Of course we need to educate physicians about the responsible prescribing of opioid medications. But these solutions alone won't end the crisis. They can't prevent a college student from dying at a party if his friends panic when they can't wake him up. We need a range of solutions. Fortunately, one of them costs taxpayers nothing and is ready for your signature: Assemblymember Ammiano's AB 472, California's "911 Good Samaritan" bill.
By providing the 911 caller and the overdose victim with limited immunity from arrest for possession of a small amount of drugs or paraphernalia, AB 472 will make it much easier, and far more likely, for a panicking bystander to call for emergency assistance. These are the lowest level drug crimes versus the highest human impulse--the desire to sustain life.
Research repeatedly proves that the main reason people hesitate or fail to call 911 during an overdose is their fear of arrest. New Mexico, Connecticut, Washington and New York have already enacted similar laws that encourage people to do the right thing when someone's life is on the line. These policies prioritize pragmatism over ideology, and the net result is more lives saved and, not incidentally, more people able to pursue recovery.
We can support solutions like expanding access to the generic drug naloxone, the very low cost overdose reversal drug with absolutely no potential for abuse. When administered to someone experiencing an overdose on an opiate drug like OxyContin or heroin, it restores respiration and consciousness. It's been our country's first line of defense in ambulances and emergency rooms for more than 40 years. In the hands of trained medical professionals and laypersons with access to it, naloxone has saved thousands of lives, but could be saving countless more--if people knew it existed, knew to ask their doctors about it, and knew where to find it.
While we all agree that we ought to do everything in our power to prevent our loved ones, especially our youth, from using dangerous drugs, we also know that many will, despite our most concerted efforts. We have to find ways of keeping them alive, even when they use drugs.
Governor, please stand in solidarity with the thousands of Californian families working to solve the problems of addiction and overdose. For many of them, International Overdose Awareness Day is not merely symbolic--it's a day when they unite in common purpose to help save lives. Please sign AB 472 and demonstrate to the country that California's overdose epidemic ends with your leadership.
August 30, 2011
Meghan Ralston is the Harm Reduction coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.