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Importance of immunity laws in fighting drug charges and abuse

Many illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and illicitly obtained prescription drugs are addictive. Users risk both physical harm and criminal prosecution if caught manufacturing, distributing or possessing them. In Washington State, the consequences of drug possession vary, depending on the type and amount of the controlled substance in question. However, overdoses from these drugs may be presenting a bigger concern for law enforcement officials and lawmakers.

According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, both the number of drug overdoses and deaths from them are increasing throughout the country, primarily because of the growing number of people who misuse or abuse prescription opioids, synthetic painkillers that mimic the effects of opium-derived drugs such as morphine and heroin. Drug overdoses are considered a major cause of preventable death, with fatalities from prescription painkillers surpassing deaths from illegal drugs. Among the reasons drug overdose deaths are high is because people fail to seek help because they are afraid of being arrested for possessing or using these drugs.

To address the problem of drug overdoses, new immunity laws have been enacted. These so-called Good Samaritan laws encourage people experiencing or witnessing drug overdoses to seek medical attention. By providing immunity to those using the drugs, the laws may encourage 911 calls to report overdose emergencies. Good Samaritan laws also provide protection to those involved in prescribing, possessing or administering illegal drugs in an emergency.

Only 20 states and the District of Columbia now have Good Samaritan laws in place. The laws offer immunity only to low-level crimes such as possession for personal use. Every state, including Washington, has imposed some restrictions on immunity, allowing protection from criminal charges only if certain requirements are met. In Washington, Good Samaritan laws only apply to possession offenses and may be a factor that allows evidence to be suppressed for other charges.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, "Drug Overdose Immunity "Good Samaritan" Laws," Accessed Aug. 4, 2014

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