Police say they want to get behind the source of the drug when there’s an overdose death, but their initial response is one of protection and that includes ensuring those who call for help don’t get into trouble.
Officers responding to an overdose call wear black Nitrile gloves to protect against the possible absorption of fentanyl or any other toxic drug that could be on site. Equipped with Narcan nasal spray used to reverse opioid overdoses, they’re also prepared to perform first-aid in case they’re the first on scene.
“When we get a call for an overdose, our first responsibility is to protect and save lives,” said Det.-Sgt. Patrick Brouillard, who is in charge of general investigations for Barrie police.
But administering Narcan, which can block the effects of opioids, may not be enough. If the opioid ingested is particularly strong, Brouillard said there's still a risk of overdosing when the Narcan wears off, so a trip to the hospital is strongly recommended.
The hope is that people do call for help, first and foremost. And there has been a concerted effort to encourage drug users to phone 911 by emphasising that they’re protected against possession charges.
Ontario Provincial Police officers are also equipped with Narcan.
“Because we police rural Ontario, sometimes we’re the first ones that could be on scene. So we carry Naloxone for our officers and also distribute it to the members of the public,” said Det.-Insp. Jim Walker, deputy director of the OPP's Organized Crime Enforcement Bureau, who leads the enforcement pillar of the Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy (SMOS).
“The other thing that we did was instill the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act into all of our responses to overdoses," he added.
The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act was designed to encourage people to call for help when it’s needed without having the fear of being arrested. Introduced in 2017 as an amendment to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, it provides immunity from prosecution for simple possession and/or charges related to the violation of certain conditions or orders.
With significant increases in overdose deaths since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, protection from prosecution for people who use drugs is more necessary than ever, said Ryerson University criminology professor Emily van der Meulen.
Van der Meulen, along with Janet Butler-McPhee and Sandra Ka Hon Chu from the HIV Legal Network, conducted a survey of drug users and those who have witnessed drug overdoses for the study, titled The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act: The Good, The Bad, and The Ineffective.
“Many people told us that they were hesitant to call 911 for an overdose because they’re afraid of being targeting, harassed or surveiled when police arrive," van der Meulen said in an interview conducted via email. "We heard lots of stories of inappropriate police behaviour, which, of course, discourages witnesses from calling 911 at a future overdose incident.
“So, the law seems to be working very differently in practice than what was intended when it was implemented," she added.
Butler-McPhee believes overdoses are a health emergency that require medical intervention, not police enforcement. In the absence of a risk, she said police presence at overdoses is unnecessary and counterproductive.
The intention of the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act is to reassure people that saving lives is the priority in an overdose call, but Butler-McPhee says people still fear calling 911.
“We know that there is a lot of misinformation circulating about the Good Samaritan law," she said. "This has been an ongoing problem for several years. In 2017, we even created and distributed tens of thousands of wallet-sized cards to try to help people understand when they are actually protected by this law."
Butler-McPhee is calling for decriminalization of drug possession.
Meanwhile, the OPP launched its own information campaign both internally and to the general public. That included a series of videos posted monthly to social media sites.
There was also a four-week campaign centring on the protection provided by the Act that was done in partnership with Cineplex Media. A 30-second video played during pre-show content in more than 162 Cineplex theatre locations across Canada.
Partnerships with pharmacies, organizations involved in drugs and substance abuse as well as post-secondary institutions were created to help get the word out.
Christine Padaric conducted her own communications campaign over the years as well, which included presenting to students where her son once went to high school in Elmira, Ont. Her son, Austin, was 17 when he overdosed on April 5, 2013 after another man crushed morphine pills for the teen to snort.
And although several people were on hand, no one sought help until seven hours after Austin first went into distress.
After the man who crushed the pills pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2016, receiving a sentence of two years less a day, Christine became involved in a national campaign to introduce the amendment to the Good Samaritan Act to encourage people to call for help when there’s an overdose.
But she knew that even with the legislative change, more needed to be done, so she set out to put the word out in the Waterloo area, pairing up with a harm reduction public health nurse to tell high school students about substance use, including the importance of calling for help.
That initiative continued for several years, but eventually came to an end. Since then, the widespread availability of naloxone has been a game-changer, Padaraic said. But she sees the ongoing need for public awareness about the relatively new protections offered through the legislation.
“People just don’t know about it, so there’s still a stigma around calling police. It’s a scary thing, they’re going to get arrested, ‘my parents are going to find out’,” said Padaric. “It’s getting beyond that.”