After collecting needles, the group delivers them to County Health Services for disposal.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a SCW look at major shifts in the way drug use is being approached as a public health problem in Santa Cruz. Part two runs next week.

At the beginning of the year, a potentially powerful piece of California legislation quietly took effect, with only minimal media attention. Assembly Bill 472, better known as the “911 Good Samaritan Law,” attempts to save lives by offering protection from criminal prosecution to those under the influence of a narcotic if they are overdosing or witnessing an overdose, and need to call for medical help.

“We’re hopeful the new law will encourage people to relay more accurate facts and information to the [EMTs],” explains Brenda Brenner, the Director of Operations for the American Medical Response in Santa Cruz County. “We’re hoping it will help them avoid giving false information that could jeopardize a patient’s life.”

Most Americans don’t know they are in the middle of an overdose epidemic. According to 2011 data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, controlled substance overdoses are now the number one cause of accidental death in the country, surpassing both traffic and gun-related fatalities. It is the number one accidental killer of Californians, and the state has the greatest number of overdoses in the country.

“Fatal overdoses are mostly opiate related,” explains Hilary McQuie, the California Director for the Harm Reduction Coalition. Besides illicit drugs like heroin, this includes prescription pills (whether obtained legally or illegally), which are the top killer.

According to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs’ last study, conducted between 2002 and 2006, the number of drug-related deaths in Santa Cruz more than doubled in that time. Many national studies have shown that the top reason people hesitate to call emergency vehicles is from fear of arrest.

 “It’s been known for a long time in the drug using community, there is a danger of suffering prosecution if you call 911 for an overdose,” says Emily Agers. For over a decade Agers has worked with harm reduction organizations that deal head-on with issues like overdosing. Currently, she volunteers with the Street Outreach Supporters (SOS): a local, non-profit organization that provides harm reduction services such as HIV testing, syringe exchange and training on what to do in case of an overdose.

Last week, SOS was ordered to give up its site at a laundromat on Barson and Bixby in Lower Ocean, where there has been a needle exchange for over two decades in one form or another.

California is the tenth state to have passed such legislation (done with bipartisan support), after Rhode Island, New York, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida and Washington. And it seems to be working. By the law’s first birthday, the Washington ACLU published a report showing 88% of opiate users surveyed would call emergency response in the case of an overdose. New York’s law made national headlines last November when musician Jon Bon Jovi’s daughter overdosed in her college dorm and was later arrested after recovery. The chargers were later dropped because of the law.

But the legislation has its share of skeptics.

“The legislature has continued to find ways to enable dysfunctional behavior,” declares Santa Cruz Police Department Deputy Chief, Steve Clark. “I understand wanting to encourage ways for people to call 911 and not let individuals suffer, but to further enable it by saying ‘Hey it’s ok if you have some drugs or paraphernalia?’”

The new law does come with several restrictions. It provides protection only for the crimes “of being under the influence of a controlled substance, or for the possession of a controlled substance for personal use . . . or paraphernalia.” The caller must act “in good faith” and “not interfere with law enforcement” in order to be permitted immunity.

However, the definition of “personal use” remains ambiguous.

“We haven’t seen anything from the Attorney General’s office that brings some clarification on the issue,” says Clark. With such subjective phrasing, it seems very possible the courts will still be tied up with overdose related drug cases.

But Agers believes it is an important first step. “Being able to know that you can dial 911 and have the confidence that you can save your friend’s life, or your partner’s life, or your child’s life—you’re not going to hesitate to make that call,” she says.