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Make the Call: Medical Amnesty Eliminates the Fear of Getting in Trouble

In 2008, Carson Starkey was compelled to drink large quantities of alcohol during a fraternity initiation ritual. His fraternity brothers placed him in a car and headed to the hospital when he stopped responding to them. Only, Carson never made it to the hospital. Because of the fear of getting in trouble, those in the car decided to turn around and head back to the house where Carson was placed on a mattress to “sleep it off.” He never woke up.

Tragically, Carson’s story isn’t uncommon. A Cornell University study found that while 19% of respondents reported being in a situation where they considered calling for help for a severely intoxicated individual, only 4% actually made the call. A top reason for not making that call: the fear of getting into trouble.

In an inebriated state, young people see the minor legal infraction as the end of the world. Getting in trouble with parents, with school, a sports team, scholarship eligibility, disclosure on grad school applications, and future employment, are all concerns that instantly flash through the minds of underage drinkers when a fun night with friends drastically changes into a life or death situation.

Medical Amnesty, while it does not excuse illegal behavior, eliminates the deadly fear of calling for help. Medical Amnesty (which is also known as the 911 Good Samaritan or Lifeline law in some states) is a state law which grants intoxicated minors a limited legal immunity from a state’s underage possession/consumption of alcohol statute when they seek help for themselves or another individual who is in need of immediate medical attention. As of September 2014, 21 states and Washington, D.C. have passed a Medical Amnesty law.

In each of these states, the law is crafted to maintain the integrity of the existing alcohol laws, protect police officer discretion, decrease the chances for abuse, and provide young people with a set of guidelines which, if met, can protect them in times of a medical emergency. It has gained wide bi-partisan support in many legislatures and has been passed unanimously in several states. What we have found following implementation is that not only has the fear of seeking help decreased and the numbers of 911 calls increased, but these calls for help are coming in much earlier in the progression of symptoms. This trend suggests a willingness to call at the first signs of trouble.

In addition, over 275 college and universities throughout the country have also implemented their own on-campus policies which are intended to alleviate the fears one may have of seeking help due to repercussions from the university and student judicial process.

Over the course of the next year, The Medical Amnesty Initiative and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility will be working together to advocate for this life-saving policy. We have 29 states left to tackle and each state represents another opportunity to save a young life.

Aaron Letzeiser is the Executive Director of The Medical Amnesty Initiative; a nonprofit he founded in 2012 which advocates for the introduction and passage of Medical Amnesty legislation throughout the United States. Aaron is a graduate of Michigan State University, a former legislative staffer, and was named to the 2014 Forbes 30 Under 30 list in Law & Policy. Keep up with The Medical Amnesty Initiative on twitter, @Medical_Amnesty, and on Facebook.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (Responsibility.org) or any Responsibility.org member.*