Parents of overdose victims press lawmakers for better Good Samaritan laws

By Jennifer Fernandez

GREENSBORO — Randy Abbott lost his daughter to a drug overdose in 2015.

No one called for help in time.

Diannee Carden’s son died from a heroin overdose in 2012.

No one called for help in time.

As North Carolina continues to lose more people to overdoses every year — a record 4,339 in 2022 — parents and families are calling for a change in state laws that they say would encourage people to call for help, even if they had used drugs themselves or had supplied the potentially fatal dose.

“We do not support the current approach of tougher criminality in prison for the non drug dealer who participates in an overdose event,” Carden said Wednesday during a news conference on the changing legal landscape of the opioid epidemic. 

Diannee Carden

“We cannot be quiet. We will continue, as family members who have lost someone to overdose, to speak out. We want policies that work to keep people alive with compassion, support and harm reduction,” added Carden, who founded ekiM for Change after her son’s death (the organization’s name honors her son Mike, using his name spelled backwards). The Pitt County-based nonprofit provides a variety of harm reduction services, from clean needles and naloxone to fentanyl test strips and HIV testing. 

Abbott spoke earlier in the week at a news conference in Greensboro to release the results of a new survey from Expand Good Sam NC that showed likely North Carolina voters also want to see changes in the state’s Good Samaritan law.

“In a drug overdose event, voters clearly state that greater emphasis needs to be placed on saving an overdose victim’s life instead of charging someone with a drug offense,” said Abbott, coalition coordinator and a parent advocate.

Good Samaritan law poll

Expand Good Sam NC is a coalition of organizations from across the state proposing key changes to the state’s Good Samaritan law that they say will encourage people to call for assistance without fear of penalty.

The group commissioned a poll of likely voters conducted by phone last month by Strategic Partners Solutions, a Raleigh-based consulting firm. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Among its findings:

  • At least three-quarters of the 600 voters surveyed, from across the political spectrum, agreed that “Saving the life of someone who has overdosed should be more important than catching the person who supplied the drugs.”
  • Over two-thirds of the voters across all demographic subsets agree that a person who calls 911 for assistance in a drug overdose situation should not be charged with possession as long as they are not a drug trafficker.
  • These voters also overwhelmingly agree (75.5 percent) on providing protection to university students who call to report an overdose.
  • Nearly two-thirds (66.2 percent) of the surveyed voters agree that a person should not be charged with “death by distribution” if they called for assistance.

Of the randomly selected people surveyed, close to two in five said they have had a friend or family member die from an overdose, something that was more common for the people from rural areas. 

Mary O’Donnell has long supported expanding the state’s Good Samaritan laws. Her son Sean died in 2017 after passing out while drinking with friends at a quarry near his Chatham County home. Frightened, his friends left him behind. He later fell into the quarry and drowned. 

She encouraged supporters to let lawmakers know they want to see changes in the laws to help prevent more deaths.

Abbott said the changes are needed.

“We’re losing a generation,” he said. “We’re losing lives every day.”

N.C. changes laws

Last year, North Carolina legislators joined a growing list of states that have strengthened “death by distribution” laws. At the same time, the state broadened its Good Samaritan law to grant limited immunity from prosecution for possession of up to one gram of any drug. Previously, only certain drugs such as cocaine and heroin were covered. 

Abbott and Expand Good Sam NC said the changes to the Good Samaritan law don’t go far enough.

And Carden said making distribution laws harsher went too far.

They believe harsher punishments only put more lives at risk because people who fear getting charged for drug use are less likely to help someone who is overdosing.  

Barb Walsh, executive director of Fentanyl Victims Network of North Carolina, isn’t happy with some of the changes to the state’s Good Samaritan law for a different reason: The expansion to all drugs includes fentanyl, which is highly potent and is the leading cause of overdoses in North Carolina. 

Fentanyl is the drug that killed her 24-year-old daughter in 2021 when she unknowingly drank a bottle of water laced with the drug. No one has been charged in her daughter’s death.

Just two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal.

“I disagree with that policy but went along with it to get the modified law passed,” Walsh said, adding that she thinks possession of illicit drugs as potent as fentanyl that could kill so many people is wrong.

She has been focusing her harm reduction efforts on getting the lifesaving opioid-reversal drug naloxone into the state’s schools. 

Naloxone in schools

Last week, Walsh hosted a Fentanyl Awareness Day in Raleigh at the General Assembly. More than 75 families met with legislators to talk about their concerns and to encourage support for efforts like getting naloxone in schools. 

The next day lawmakers introduced two bills that would appropriate $350,000 from state Opioid Settlement Funds to send naloxone to all of the state’s schools.

However, since school boards make policy decisions on the use of naloxone, Walsh said her organization is working on encouraging school systems to take advantage of the availability of the opioid-reversal drug.

She said Wake County Public Schools is considering a plan to approve having naloxone in all of its schools and may vote on it later this month.

The district, the largest in the state, already allows school resource officers to carry naloxone. The school district’s policy committee is recommending training some staff members in every school on recognizing signs of an opioid emergency and on using naloxone, according to news reports.

Last school year, school nurses, staff or SROs administered naloxone 21 times on school grounds in the state, according to the annual School Health Services Report Brochure. The year before, it was used 14 times.

‘Unrelenting disease’

North Carolina families that shared their stories of loss at the two events this week said they want lawmakers to decriminalize drug possession, increase harm reduction and addiction services, open overdose prevention centers, and provide evidence-based voluntary treatment options.

Recovery was what her daughter strived for, said Caroline Drake, community engagement coordinator for Guilford County Solution to the Opioid Problem

“She was a beautiful, caring, timid, sweet girl who wanted nothing but to love and be loved, to be free of this unrelenting disease,” Drake said of her daughter Kaitlyn, who died in 2020 at age 23. “She tried to outrun it many times, but it always seemed to catch up to her.”

Drake said GCStop was always there for her daughter when she was in active addiction. So it felt natural to her to give back when she was in recovery. She was volunteering up until the week before she relapsed and fatally overdosed.

“The road that brought me here is not one that I would ever have chosen but will continue to travel it in hopes to be able to spare another family from this unending pain,” Drake said. 

She said she also wants to spare another person “who doesn’t deserve to die” because someone is afraid they’ll be punished “for simply doing the right thing — calling for help.”

This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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