A new District law meant to protect D.C. drug users could also have an unintended beneficiary: “cool” parents.

The Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Amendment Act of 2012 is intended to make it safer for drug users to call emergency services in case of another user’s overdose by offering them legal protections. But it could also help parents who give their kids booze.

That, anyway, is what D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson worried at a Wednesday Judiciary Committee hearing. “It’s a question of whether or not you want to gamble with a child’s life,” responded Grant Smith, the Federal Policy Coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Eight other states have this kind of Good Samaritan law, but Assistant United States Attorney Patricia Riley said the language in the District’s bill is too broad.

Although she disagrees with nearly the entire bill, if the D.C. Council ratifies it, Riley said she recommends it specify the definition of “drug offense” and “overdose” to only apply in certain cases. “Evidence discovered in connection with these overdoses could be critical in resulting criminal cases,” she said. “The government should not be hamstrung by prohibiting prosecution for violating the drug laws as well.” Mendelson pointed out that there is at least one check already in place: 911 dispatchers ask a series of questions before they qualify something as an overdose.

Washington state, which has a similar law, is in the midst of conducting a study on the impacts of the policy change. So far, 88 percent of people who use heroin are more likely to call 911 now than they were when there was a threat of a penalty, Smith said.

“Fear should not dictate who lives and who dies, especially when emergency services are one phone call away,” said Shaela Moen, a Public Health Graduate Student at George Washington University.

Although there may be a stigma to calling 911 in these situations, Metropolitan Police Department doesn’t immediately dispatch its officers to calls for medical attention, Riley said. Rather than pass this bill, Riley said she would prefer to make this fact common knowledge. Like every other witness, she said she supported one section of the bill that would provide more public overdose prevention education.

“I think it’s about finding a balance,” Mendelson said of the bill.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery