The House

Drug users still too scared of police to call 911 for overdoses

The government introduced the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act in May 2017 to provide some amnesty for drug users - but a year after the legislation was passed, many people are still too scared to call for help because they fear arrest.
Experts say the government's attempts to encourage drug users to call 911 have fallen short, and people continue to die. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Listen13:32

As her friend was overdosing on drugs laced with fentanyl, Katrina Adams called 911 in a panic.

While paramedics were working to save the woman's life, police walked through the back door and began arresting other people in the house on drug charges.

"A friend is overdosing and they're concerned with what they're overdosing on, but only to follow up with, 'Well, where did they get it?'" said Adams, a drug user living in Ottawa.

In May 2017, the government introduced the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act — a law meant to prevent scenes like the one Adams witnessed last summer. A year after the legislation was passed, however, many drug users are still too scared to call for help in overdose crises because of the threat of arrest.

The act provides a degree of amnesty for people who overdose, or who contact 911 to report an overdose. It protects those who report an overdose — and everyone else at the scene when police and paramedics arrive — from charges stemming from drug possession and breach of conditions, like parole or probation, related to possession.

It doesn't shield anyone from charges related to outstanding warrants, drug production or trafficking.

The Liberal government billed the legislation as a life-saving measure. Jane Philpott, who was health minister when the law was introduced, issued a public plea for people to call 911 to report overdoses — and promised they'd be safe from arrest if they did.

"No one associated with that, the victim or the person who makes the phone call, will be at risk of being charged with possession of drugs," Philpott said at the time.

"This is absolutely essential to save lives."

Last year, almost 4,000 Canadians died of drug overdoses. The vast majority of those deaths can be traced back to one substance: the opioid ​fentanyl.

The powerful painkiller is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, and a dose the size of a grain of sand can be enough to trigger an overdose.

Experts CBC News spoke to said drug users have told them they wouldn't feel safe calling 911 to report an overdose — even if their own lives were on the line.

The government introduced the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act in May 2017 to provide some amnesty for people, but a year after the legislation was passed drug users are still scared to call for help because they fear arrest. 13:32