The United States suffers from a problem of drug overdose from illegal substances, whether it be underage drinking or the use of heroin. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), between 2001 and 2014, deaths due to cocaine overdose increased by 42%. In 2014, death due to heroin exceeded 10,000. Rose Rudd, Noah Aleshire, and several other authors from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), described the United States as “experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose (poisoning) deaths. Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137%”. Furthermore, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that out of the 94,200 respondents (all under the age of 21), 15.9% self-reported that they had engaged in binge drinking in the last 30 days.
These numbers are staggering. Why has there been such a sharp increase in overdose deaths recently? How can so many underage individuals be getting their hands on alcoholic beverages? While there are many hypothesis to answer these questions and a proven answer may never be known, that does not mean that there aren’t ways to combat these numbers.
The War on Drugs has a long history in the United States from the institution of prohibition in 1920 to Nixon coining the term “War on Drugs” and declaring it in 1974. Yet, even with this long fight against drug use, we still see drug use climbing, and we unfortunately see overdoses increasing as well. So perhaps tighter prohibition would not be the solution to this overdose dilemma, but ending prohibition (meaning legalizing cocaine, heroin, etc.) does not yet seem to be an option a wide majority of Americans are willing to accept, making it a politically infeasible goal for now. According to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll, only 11% of the thousand respondents wanted to legalize cocaine, 9% supported legalizing heroin, and 8% supported legalizing methamphetamines.
With this in mind, the current best and most feasible solution to decreasing the current drug overdose problem in the United States is to push for reform in good samaritan laws. Good samaritan laws comes in a lot of different variations such as freeing medical professionals or private citizens from liability if they try to help someone that is in immediate danger. However, this could go further to protect those in danger of overdose. With reform, people that call emergency services or seek medical attention for someone in danger of an overdose (or alcohol poisoning in the context of underage drinking) should be immune to any kind of criminal or civil punishments in the context of the event. For example, if there are teenagers that are drinking underage and one is suspected of being in danger of alcohol poisoning, the other participants should be immune to any kind of punishments should they call 911 to assist their friend. This could also be said about those that are using illicit substances. Furthermore, this law needs to be upheld unflinchingly and be well known in order for it to serve its purpose.
The strongest counter-argument for this proposal, and one that is quite common among prohibitionists, is that this could encourage drug use. If people know that they could use drugs and get out of a situation safely if an overdose were to occur, this fact would incentivize people to use illicit drugs.
Even if this were true, the main purpose of this law is not to decrease drug use, but to decrease deaths due to drug overdose, which is the problem we are facing in the United States. Furthermore, some states, municipalities, and universities have already instituted similar ideas of good samaritan laws. According to Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Cornell University Instituted this form of good samaritan ruling in 2006, and not only found that there was a major increase in emergency calls, but that there was also a fairly constant rate of alcohol use on campus. Several states have also instituted good samaritan laws, like North Carolina, which is specifically for underage drinking, and California, which institutes this kind of reform fully, and neither of these states has seen a drastic increase of use after this kind of reform.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the #1 cited reason for people not calling 911 in the case of an overdose is the fear of criminal punishment. Since this is the case, it is clear that the only feasible way of alleviating death due to overdose is to ensure immunity of punishment through medical amnesty.