Patty DiRenzo, whose son died of an overdose, became an advocate for the 911 Good Samaritan Law.
Patty DiRenzo’s son, Salvatore, didn’t die alone — but that’s how the police found him.
After he died of a heroin overdose in 2010, Salvatore was found alone in his car, parked in Camden, New Jersey. When the police notified DiRenzo, they let her know that someone else had been in the car with Salvatore before he died.
“Someone left him in his car, alone, to die,” DiRenzo said. “That didn’t sit well with me at all, so I started making phone calls, and a few months later I got in touch with the Drug Policy Alliance and learned about 911 legislation.”
The Drug Policy Alliance is a New York City-based nonprofit that wants to end the United States’ War on Drugs.
Since then, DiRenzo has been an advocate to get the 911 Good Samaritan Law passed in New Jersey. This law — adopted in states across the country in various degrees — protects individuals from being punished for drug possession or being under the influence of a controlled substance if they are experiencing an overdose or see someone else experiencing an overdose while using. This allows people to call for medical help during instances of overdose without fear of arrest.
In 2013, New Jersey passed its own Good Samaritan Law, which was later renamed to the Overdose Prevention Act in 2015. The law provides legal protections to overdose victims and those seeking help in times of overdose. It also allows first responders to administer naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote that can prevent overdose deaths.
“Before Good Samaritan, people usually wouldn’t call, and if they did, they would give so little information that it was almost, we were on a hunt trying to find the individual that needed medical attention,” Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson told New Jersey 101.5 radio.
Since this legislation was enacted, the Camden County Police Department saved the lives of 260 drug overdose victims using naloxone.
But DiRenzo thinks there’s one problem with this legislation: very few drug users know it exists.
DiRenzo regularly walks the streets of Camden with police officers to hand out palm cards, which explain the Overdose Prevention Act and how it protects people who may witness a drug overdose.
“I’m amazed that when I go hand out the palm cards every three or four months, 80 percent of the people I hand them out to don’t know about the legislation,” DiRenzo said.
In Pennsylvania, Good Samaritan Laws were updated in 2014 to protect people from drug and alcohol overdoses and driving under the influence.
“About 10 years ago, we saw the heroin epidemic coming,” said Eric Miller, an officer from the Marple Township Police Department in Broomall, Pennsylvania. “We were screaming, ‘We’ve got a problem’ at the top of our lungs. No one wanted to listen because they just weren’t seeing it.”