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Legal immunity for reporting and treating drug overdoses

The number of nationwide prescription painkiller deaths eclipsed fatalities caused by street drugs between 1999 and 2010, according to federal health officials. A significant number of overdoses have been due to synthetic opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone, with effects mimicking heroin. Wisconsin laws attempt to prevent these deaths by granting immunity to individuals who assist overdose victims.

Witnesses often hesitate to seek emergency medical help for victims fearing their own substance use or abuse will result in drug charges. State laws attempt to allay fears of criminal and civil penalties for taking actions to save an overdose victim's life. A Wisconsin resident who calls 911, contacts a police officer or transports an overdose victim to a health care facility has immunity from prosecution.

The state will not prosecute so-called Good Samaritans who possess drug paraphernalia or controlled substances. However, there are limits of forgiveness. These laws do not protect individuals against charges for drug trafficking, the illegal distribution and sale of drugs.

Wisconsin laws also provide civil immunity for responders who administer naloxone before opiate overdose victims reach a health care facility. Naloxone is an antidote which rapidly can thwart the deadly effects of opiate drugs. Only emergency responders trained to deliver naloxone are granted this immunity.

To grasp how overdose immunity laws affect you, it's important to understand the difference between criminal and civil charges. Criminal charges are allegations of wrongdoing brought by the state, on behalf of society, against alleged lawbreakers. Civil charges are legal disputes involving personal breaches of duty – a common example is when a negligent driver, the defendant, is ordered to compensate an injured accident victim, the plaintiff, for damages.

Milwaukee residents charged with overdose-related drug offenses can find out more about Wisconsin immunity laws by speaking with a criminal defense attorney. Lawyers help defendants understand the charges they face and develop strategies to lessen criminal consequences.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, "Drug Overdose Immunity "Good Samaritan" Laws," accessed Aug. 12, 2015

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