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Canada’s ‘Good Samaritan’ Act Not Doing Enough to Reduce Overdoses

Canada introduced the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act to provide legal protection for individuals who seek emergency help during an overdose, but people are still fearful of arrest.

Introduced in May 2017, the Act provides legal protection to people who experience or witness an overdose by giving them immunity from simple possession charges if they call emergency services. The Act also provides an exemption from charges for people who make such a call when subject to a probation order, serving a conditional sentence, or are on parole. However, the Act does not protect individuals from charges related to outstanding warrants, drug production, or trafficking. The aim of the Act is to help reduce fear of police attending overdoses and, according to the Government of Canada, to “encourage people to help save a life”.

In 2017, there were almost 4,000 deadly opioid overdoses in Canada, 72 per cent of which were attributed to the powerful opioid fentanyl. Fentanyl is a highly potent, rapidly-acting opioid drug which is estimated to be 100 times more potent than morphine – creating a high risk of accidental overdose, especially for people who are unaware that they are consuming fentanyl.

Opioid-related overdose has now become the leading cause of death among 30-39 year olds in Canada, says Dr Theresa Tam, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada; “these data represent the loss of valuable life”.

Despite these worrying figures, experts say many people who use drugs still do not feel safe calling 911 to report an overdose, even when it is their own lives which are at risk. There has been no noticeable increase in emergency calls for overdoses in Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa since the act was passed – suggesting that people are either unaware of the Act, or do not feel sufficiently protected by it. 

Zoe Dodd, a harm reduction worker in Toronto told CBC News that this may be because “the Act does not protect people from being questioned [about] where they got their drugs, or from police harassment”.

Experts say that police are still laying charges for possession often enough to make it hard to convince people to ask for help. The federal government did not provide any funding or directives for training police with the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, so some officers remain unaware of how to best implement the law.

To bring about a significant reduction in overdose deaths, it seems that Canadian authorities may need to amend the Act, and appropriately instruct police, so that people feel protected when they call the emergency services.

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