One law provides greater access to life-saving help, the other could provide more immediate access to life-saving medication.
Both are aimed, advocates say, at those who have overdosed on illegal drugs — and keeping them alive.
A law passed in 2011, dubbed the 911 Good Samaritan Law, provides greater access to help.
It allows limited protections to those who witness drug overdoses, immunizing them from most drug possession charges if they seek medical help for someone who has overdosed on drugs.
The other law, which is still only a proposal, would allow for greater access to naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of heroin and can stop an overdose from turning deadly. The law would get the drug into the hands of more people who could put it to use.
That law has been gaining traction since the recent high-profile death in New York City of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman is believed to have died of a heroin overdose.
The scourge of drug addiction, heroin especially, has also gotten attention locally in recent months.
Ellis Hospital in Schenectady has seen a jump in recent years in the number of people seeking treatment for heroin overdoses.
From 2008 to 2011, the numbers varied from 11 to 13 each year. In 2012, the numbers spiked to 25. Through the first nine months of 2013, the hospital saw 15 overdose cases.
VOCAL-NY, a New York City-based group that has advocated for both laws, said they both serve the goal of keeping addicts alive, giving them the opportunity to change.
“Most deaths are witnessed. Most are preventable,” Matt Curtis, VOCAL-NY policy director, said Friday. “Whatever your feeling on using drugs or anything like that, dead people don’t get the opportunity to make positive changes in their lives.”
The law being proposed now would expand the number of available prescribers for the opiate-blocking drug naloxone.
If administered within a certain time, the drug can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, possibly saving the person’s life. The drug recently was credited with saving a Rensselaer County man’s life.
The proposal would allow “standing orders” where non-medical staff of health care agencies could dispense the medication, increasing the chances of getting it to those in need, according to VOCAL-NY. The bill also includes liability protections.
The availability of naloxone has been expanding in other ways already. Several local ambulance companies carry the drug aboard their vehicles, for example. Duanesburg Ambulance paramedics were trained to administer it a year ago, according to Michael Dailey, regional EMS medical director based at Albany Medical Center.
In Rensselaer County, paramedic-trained sheriff’s deputies also have the drug on hand. It was a sheriff’s deputy who was credited with saving the man’s life earlier this month, Dailey said.
It can be administered through the nose without use of needles, he said.
“It frankly works extremely well and is less hazardous to EMS personnel,” Dailey said.
He likened the proposal to public access to defibrillators. Wider access to naloxone can save lives, he said.
VOCAL-NY helped propose the bill, Curtis said, and it’s been moving through the state Legislature quickly.
“For folks like us, this is incredibly important to get this into the hands of people when and where it’s needed.”
The Good Samaritan Law of 2011 protects those seeking help for an overdose from prosecution for narcotics possession, though it does not cover the highest level of possession offenses. It also protects underage drinkers who are seeking help for alcohol poisoning.
There are some exceptions to the protections, including those previously convicted of higher-level drug sales.
There are conflicting opinions on whether word had gotten out to drug abusers about the protections.
Dailey, at Albany Medical Center, said he believes a significant portion of users are aware of the law. They’ve learned about it through needle exchange programs and other groups, he said.
At Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, JoAnne McDonough, chair of emergency medicine, said she still sees addicts in the Ellis emergency room who don’t seem to be aware.
She recalled one case recently where a man needed help and his friends brought him in. The friends came in, but left quickly. The man was still coherent enough to try to leave himself, concerned he’d be arrested.
“The people that we’re talking to are impaired at the time, they’ve just overdosed, so they’re not always thinking clearly,” McDonough said.
Curtis said he believes more could be done to get the word out. He said his group still sees lingering doubts among drug users.
“It’s still a little bit of an uphill struggle at that level,” he said. “On the other hand, I think it’s an incredibly important policy.”