B.C. police presence at overdose calls discourages requests for help, say legal advocates

Legal advocates are calling on the province to do more to protect drug users from being arrested after they call 911 for an overdose.

Legal advocates say drug users should feel safe when they call 911

Paramedics work to revive an overdose victim on Main Street in Vancouver on December 23, 2016, at the height of the worst month for overdoses in 2016. (G. P. Mendoza /CBC)

Legal advocates want the province to do more to protect drug users who are arrested after they call 911 for an overdose.

Pivot Legal Society, an organization that advocates for disenfranchised people in B.C., say the arrests undermine the intent of a provincial law that encourages drug users to call authorities for help in a drug crisis.

Pivot recently wrapped up province-wide community consultations on various topics — including the Good Samaritan Act.

The law, enacted last May, is meant to encourage drug users to call paramedics by providing immunity from possession charges when reporting an overdose.

But Pivot says several people during the consultations said arrests at overdose calls occur frequently, albeit for various charges. It wants the province to revisit and expand the law to provide more protection to users.

"Given the context that we're in this overwhelming opioid crisis, it's really unfair to put people in the position where they have to decide between calling 911 for assistance or being arrested," said Caitlin Shane, a community engagement lawyer with Pivot.

Pivot could not provide figures on how many people have been arrested after calling for help during an overdose.

Police throughout the province dispute that they're targeting drug users for arrests during an overdose call, but they do send officers when public safety is at risk.

But Shane said the arrests appear to be happening all the same, especially in smaller communities. 

'People will die'

Dwayne Martin, resident of a homeless camp in Maple Ridge, says he witnessed an arrest at the camp a couple of months ago. 

A fellow camp resident had suffered an overdose and was treated with Naloxone by a neighbour, who also called 911.

When police arrived with paramedics, the man refused service.

But Martin says police insisted they visit him in his tent. When they did, they found illicit drugs and took him into custody in their vehicle. 

"We got him out of the car eventually," he said. "They finally let him go."

Martin, 48, says incidents like these have put a chill on camp residents, who would now prefer to deal with overdoses themselves, without help from authorities.

"People will die if [police] keep on accompanying ambulances," he said. "I understand that's their job, but come on, don't be an ambulance chaser."

Not all arrests covered by Good Samaritan Act

But police forces in the province say they don't automatically respond to overdose calls — and when they do, it's usually warranted. 

According to B.C. RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Janelle Shoihet, a new directive imposed on the B.C. Emergency Health Services Act in July 2016 prevents all law enforcement agencies in the province from attending an overdose call unless requested. 

Shoihet said police may accompany paramedics if they feel unsafe going somewhere like a homeless camp, or if there are weapons or other illegal activity. 

Legal advocates say drug users should be able to feel safe when they call 911 for a medical emergency. (CBC)

"I think the public would be upset to find out that we walked into a [clandestine] lab for an overdose and then took no further action following that," she said. 

"If during the course of our attendance something comes to our attention, then unfortunately we have to address that."

Shoihet said the Good Samaritan Act provides immunity for callers who may face possession charges — not for trafficking or outstanding warrants for serious crimes. 

Advocating for change

Pivot's Caitlin Shane says the distinction between personal possession and possession for trafficking is a grey zone largely left to police discretion.

As for other charges drug users who call for help may face, Shane said users are often involved in illicit income-generating activities and are likely to have outstanding warrants. 

Shane said that shouldn't preclude them from feeling safe when they call 911 for a medical emergency.

"The [Good Samaritan Act] in its current manifestation fails to really take into account the reality of drug use or the lives of people who use drugs," she said. 

For now, Pivot's goal is to continue collecting feedback from people across the province. Shane says the organization will then share those stories will legislators, which she hopes will lead to updating the law.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.