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The Good Samaritan Law: Nobody Out Here Wants To Die

Tiffany Eckert

Oregon’s Good Samaritan Law includes an aspect which has to do with drug overdose.  It provides immunity from drug charges and arrest when someone acts in good faith to save a life. To understand how the law impacts a community struggling with the opioid crisis, KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert walked the downtown beat with a Eugene cop.

Drug overdose calls can come from anywhere, anytime. In Eugene, the nooks and crannies of the urban landscape are sometimes the scenes of near-death experiences.

Jose Alveraz is with the downtown bikes team for the Eugene Police Department.

“We’re in the heart of downtown. Pretty busy intersection," Alvarez says. "We call this the BAR-muda triangle. We’ve got several bars in this immediate area. There’s a lot of foot traffic through here. We have a lot of homeless pass through.

Reporter: “As we walk through this area. How often do you get calls in this specific space?

“Many times a day,” Alvarez says, pointing in various directions.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Officer Jose Alvarez points to an overdose locations in downtown Eugene.

Alvarez has responded to more Good Samaritan calls for overdose than he can count.

Credit National Conference of State Legislatures
Most states in the U.S. have Good Samaritan overdose immunity laws.

“And here’s the way all of those calls unfold,” says Alvarez. “I show up and 4 or 5 people who are hanging out run away right away. Typically the best friend or lover or brother or sister, closest associate of the person who has overdosed and dying will stick around. They’re usually fearful that they’re gonna be arrested.”

If a person makes a good faith effort to save a life and yet they are out of sorts with the law, this is when Oregon’s Good Samaritan Law goes into effect.

“I have had people I knew had warrants call for their friends who were overdosing.” Alvarez says. “Our number one priority is public safety. We don’t want people to be afraid to call in when someone is overdosing. We’re not going to arrest them for drugs that they have on their person. Drug warrants.”

As we walk and talk, Officer Alvarez’s eyes rove the side streets and alleyways. He regularly nods and waves to people who recognize him. Alvarez is laid back out here amongst the hooting transients, panhandlers and car exhaust (hear coughs.) Maybe it’s because of the nearly two decades he spent as a crisis medic with White Bird and CAHOOTS before joining the police force.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Officer Jose Alvarez walks and watches out in downtown Eugene.

“I try not to judge anybody who has a drug addiction. I think an overdose situation is a terrible tragedy. I wish it were avoidable,” the officer says. “But you have drug dealers on the upper end who really don’t care what happens to the user. They’re profit motivated.”

And while quantity is high, Alvarez says the quality of Eugene’s street drugs is sketchy at best, deadly at worst.

“Typical situation is someone has gotten a dose of heroin that has hot spots in it. It isn’t well mixed and they get a very concentrated dose, accidently,” Alvarez says. “Or there’s fentanyl. There’s fentanyl in almost all the heroin now. And actually a lot of the meth. Anytime I seize meth I test it. About half the time it comes up positive for fentanyl.”

When an overdose call comes in on 911, Alvarez says police often arrive on the scene before fire medics.

“For us it’s one guy in a car,” he says. “We can get places a lot faster. Most of our officers carry Narcan on duty. I have mine in my pocket right now.” 

Narcan, also known as Naloxone, is an “opioid antagonist” which temporarily reverses opioid overdose. Free training and Naloxone kits are distributed in Lane County by agencies like HIV Alliance.

The non-profit Max’s Mission was founded by the parents of young Ashland man who died of a heroin overdose in 2013. Julia and David Pinsky have since bought and distributed many hundreds of Naloxone kits along with cards explaining the Good Samaritan Law.

Alvarez says most opioid addicts use just enough. Not so much that it kills them, but not too far from that either. A bad batch could tip the scale toward overdose. Good Samaritan acts include calling 911 and using all the knowledge and training you have to prevent death.

“And don’t surpass that!  You know, don’t try to do open heart surgery when someone is overdosing," Alvaraz insists. "Don’t go Pulp Fiction on them. Maybe try to do a tracheotomy or something like that.”

By the way- besides at the movies- Alvaraz has never seen any of that stuff go down.

Alvarez says everyone should be prepared to be a good Samaritan. He’s a proponent of Naloxone kits in glove boxes and the compassion of strangers. 

“Addiction is pervasive," says Alvarez. "In Eugene heroin addiction is a big problem. I can see two people right now who are heroin addicts. And they live right here on the street. Right here on this corner every single day. And in their worst moment, in their most depressed moment—none of these people want to die.”

(Hear street sounds and a boom box sitting on the sidewalk, playing “Another one Bites the Dust” fade out.)

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked in a variety of media including television and daily print news. For KLCC, Tiffany reports on health care, social justice and local/regional news. She has won awards from Oregon Associated Press, PRNDI, and Education Writers Association.