The rare step taken by Halifax police to lay a charge of criminal negligence causing death after a fatal drug overdose on New Year's Day highlights the rise of a serious problem among drug users, according to one advocate — the failure to call for help. 

Cindy MacIsaac, executive director of a methadone program in Halifax called Direction 180, said the death of Jesse Smith, 24, shows drug users fear criminal consequences if they call 911 to help a fellow user.

"There's a number of policies that need to be looked at. Firstly, it's about having Good Samaritan laws in place so that people are not afraid to call for help when an overdose incident occurs," she told CBC's Maritime Noon

Police have charged 23-year-old Jesse Raymond Gaetz with criminal negligence causing death because he allegedly failed to call for medical help for Smith.

Gaetz appeared in court on Monday. He was released on conditions and will head to Dartmouth provincial court on Feb. 8 for election or plea. 

"[Drug users are] in a panic situation," MacIsaac said. "They're afraid of the condition the person is in and how to respond because they don't have the education or the tools."

Halifax Regional Police said Monday it is very rare for a criminal negligence charge to be laid following a drug overdose. 

Halifax police's sudden and suspicious death policy says when drug use is the suspected cause of death, officers "will thoroughly investigate to determine if any person has contributed to the death or has illegally provided the substance to the deceased."

'It's about having people trained'

But MacIsaac said police need to reduce the fear of consequences among drug users and should react to the medical emergency first, clarifying when they arrive "they're not there to do a drug raid."

"Secondly, it's about having people trained and equipped in how to recognize the signs of an overdose and how to respond and how to follow up and having naloxone on their person," MacIsaac said. 

Cindy MacIsaac

Cindy MacIsaac, executive director of Direction 180 in Halifax. (CBC)

Naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opiate overdose, will be rolled out in three weeks to regular drug users through Direction 180 — for free. The intent, MacIsaac said, is to also teach users how to react in an emergency situation.  

In an overdose scenario, emergency services should be called first. Then, the antidote is administered. If nothing happens within five minutes, another dose is given, followed by chest compressions. 

This protocol was developed through medical directives, MacIsaac said. 

"Every fatal incident of overdose is preventable and unnecessary," she said. "I don't think one life outweighs the value of another life. They all matter. We really need to put pressure on the system and ensure that this is treated as a health issue."

There are other, bigger-picture problems that need addressing, she said, including building more treatment centres. 

"We really need more resources invested," MacIsaac said. "Bottom line, I always say that a dead addict can't get clean."