Nova Scotia

Illegal drug users often skeptical of new 'Good Samaritan' law

The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act prevents police from charging people with minor drug crimes when they call 911 in the case of an overdose, but the new law is being met with hesitation on the streets.

New law prevents police from charging people who call in overdoses, but only from certain crimes

Gillian Mitts has witnessed drug users delay calling 911 to report an overdose. She hopes the new law will encourage people to act more quickly. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

Gillian Mitts knows all too well what it's like to deliberate over calling for help when someone is overdosing.

At 16, she was part of a group that held off dialing 911 out of fear they'd be arrested for drug crimes.

"I had a girl overdose in an abandoned house and they actually wanted to prop her up at a stop sign so that somebody random could find her," she said.

Now 33, Mitts said the girl survived because after some deliberation, someone eventually drove her to hospital.

The federal government is trying to tackle that hesitation. The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act became law in May and it gives people who report overdoses to 911 immunity from being charged themselves with minor drug crimes or found in violation of certain court-ordered conditions.

Health Canada said it is promoting the law with money from a $2.1-million opioid education campaign through social media advertising and putting up posters at "highly visible locations that are known to people who use drugs" and at 38 music festivals across the country.

Mitts said she was unaware of the law.

Part of Health Canada's efforts to get the word out about the new law includes putting up posters. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

Those who work with addicts say it will take time to build trust with police.

"The bill (Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act) in spirit is supported, now we're just waiting to see how it rolls out," said Cindy MacIsaac, executive director of the Direction 180 methadone clinic in Halifax.

Part of her concern is with the crimes the new law doesn't protect people from being charged with, which include drug trafficking, impaired driving and possession of illegal weapons. MacIsaac said that leaves drug users feeling vulnerable.

Serrece Winter is one of them. She admits to using illegal drugs herself.

"I actually I had a few friends die of overdose and nobody called the cops when my friend died because no one wanted to be arrested," said Winter.

When asked about the new law, Winter said she didn't know anything about it. And she doesn't believe it will work.

Cindy MacIsaac, who runs a methadone clinic in Halifax, says the Good Samaritan act is a good idea but doesn't go far enough to protect people reluctant to report overdoses. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

"No one trusts the police. They're likely to somehow come up with a different charge, so maybe they won't bust you for that, but you're still going to jail," said Winter.

Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said providing health treatment to someone in need is the most important thing.

"If someone's health or safety is at risk, we would take that as our first priority and whatever follows from that being illicit drug activity or what-have-you would be a secondary priority," she said.

MacIsaac said attitudes can change over time, but only if drug users experience a change in the way police respond to drug overdoses and the people who report them.

She said people using drugs are more likely to trust they'll be protected if they hear from other users who were protected by the new law because word of mouth on the street is important.

About the Author

Blair Sanderson is an award-winning nationally syndicated current affairs reporter for CBC Radio. He's based in Halifax, where he's worked for 10 years. Contact blair.sanderson@cbc.ca