Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
The 911 call came too late.
Fresh out of rehab, Leo Espinosa told his mother he was ready to kick his heroin habit for good.
“I had seen it in his eyes. That’s what he wanted. He wanted to be able to stay away from it. But he just yearned for it,” said Helen Alvillar.
The two talked on a Tuesday morning in 2008. Espinosa sounded optimistic. He planned to look for a new job. That night, Alvillar got a call from the coroner’s office. They told her that her son had died from a drug overdose. She refused to believe them.
“I don’t know why they just called me because it’s not him,” she told her sister. “I feel so sorry for the mother of this person.”
Tragically, Alvillar was that mother. Her son, a 34-year-old father of two, died at his girlfriend’s house. She and her roommates found him too late to save his life.
A proposed law working its way through the Colorado legislature would make it easier for friends to call for help when people overdose on drugs.
“This bill is about saving lives. People sometimes don’t call 911 because they’re scared. I don’t think they’re bad people. They just don’t want to get in trouble,” said Alvillar.
Dubbed the 911 Good Samaritan law, SB-20 would give people who call for help immunity from criminal prosecution for possession of small amounts of drugs as long as they stay with the victim and cooperate fully with emergency workers.
The number of drug overdoses in Colorado has tripled over the last 10 years, according to Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center. Deaths from prescription drugs have been driving much of that increase. Over the last decade, deaths in Colorado from the most commonly abused prescription drugs nearly doubled from 228 in 2000 to 414 in 2010.
More people now die in Colorado from prescription drug overdoses than from auto accidents. In 2010, 127 people died in drunk-driving accidents, compared to the more than 400 who died from prescription drug overdoses.
Prescription Drug Abuse in Colorado
- Deaths in Colorado from the most commonly abused prescription drugs nearly doubled from 228 in 2000 to 414 in 2010
- 2010: Deaths from Rx drug abuse – 414. Deaths from drunk-driving accidents – 127
- 2009. Deaths from Rx drug abuse – 445. Deaths from drunk-driving accidents – 158.
- 2008. Deaths from Rx drug abuse – 562. Deaths from drunk-driving accidents – 173.
- CDC National report: Drug Poisoning Deaths in the U.S.
“Many people in that moment are very frightened and need this legislation to feel safe calling 911,” Raville said.
Ruth Harris also lost her son, Russ Seyfer, to a drug overdose. He had mixed Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, with Flexeril, a muscle relaxant.
“The question is forever out there if he could have been saved,” Harris testified before a House committee. “There was a girl who saw him take these and the change in his personality. There was his roommate. But paramedics were not called for 16 hours. Whether it was that no one was around or that no one called because they were afraid, I don’t know.”
With prescription drug abuse on the rise, prosecutors are increasingly charging people suspected of non-medical use of prescription drugs with “false or forged prescriptions.” In general, prosecutors oppose blanket grants of immunity. The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council wanted to add amendments to SB-20 that would have eliminated immunity for most drugs, but lawmakers said that would have gutted the bill and passed it in its original form.
Colorado already has a measure that allows underage drinkers to call for help with suspected alcohol poisoning. If lawmakers give final approval to the 911 Good Samaritan law and the governor signs it, Colorado will join New Mexico, Washington, New York, Connecticut and Illinois in passing such measures.
Drug abuse experts and emergency workers say it’s critical to know what substances a person has ingested and that every minute counts.
John Buckley, a Denver lawyer, worked as a paramedic for 22 years. He testified that he was once called to a “pharm party” where multiple children had ingested the same substances. One by one, the kids stopped breathing.
“We almost lost some of them. It was that deadly,” Buckley said. Had dispatchers known from the beginning exactly what the young people had taken, they could have sent multiple ambulances and paramedics would have known immediately how to respond.
On another call, Buckley was able to save a 50-year-old’s life because a bystander knew what prescription drugs the woman had taken. Rather than wasting time thinking the woman might have had a heart attack, Buckley was able to give her the proper medication immediately.
“Almost in the blink of an eye, she went from being clinically dead to talking and being alert,” he said. “That’s how critical seconds can be in a situation like this.”
Substance use experts increasingly are focusing on the treatment philosophy of harm reduction, said Art Way, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance of Colorado.
Drug users typically don’t quit cold turkey, Way said.
“You may not be at the point where you can quit. We’re not going to kick you out. We hope you’ll shower and eat, and in the case of injection users, use clean syringes,” Way said.
The 911 Good Samaritan Bill falls under the same umbrella of reducing harm.
“Research has shown that people hesitate to call 911 due to fear of prosecution. This hesitation is costly and lives are in the balance,” Way said.
He said that Colorado ranks among the top third of states dealing with overdoses from prescription medication and that it’s critical to try to reverse that trend.
Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, is a primary care doctor and a co-sponsor of the measure. She said saving lives is much more important than prosecuting people when they have overdosed.
“We want to get people help,” Aguilar said. “If people think they’re going to be charged, they’re going to run away and leave others to die.”