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Wyoming now only state without protections for those who help overdosing friends

Once Kansas lawmakers took unanimous action this month, Wyoming became the only state that doesn’t have a ‘good Samaritan’ law.

The inside of an ambulance in Cody, Wyoming. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

by Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

Kelsie Maureen Clutter didn’t have to die.

“​​Just one phone call could have saved her life,” said her friend, Danika Stone. 

Clutter started getting sick a lot around age 18 after graduating high school, Stone said. At the time, she thought of it as a recurring cold, but in retrospect, it was more likely withdrawal from opioids.

Clutter sought help for addiction, but Stone said her friend didn’t get the support she needed. Eventually she overdosed. The man she was with didn’t call for help as she was dying.

“He, admittedly so, was scared, and he didn’t want to get in trouble,” she said. 

Clutter was 19. She left behind an infant son.

Kelsie Clutter and Danika Stone (Courtesy of Danika Stone)

Clutter died in 2013, and in the decade since, Stone has been advocating for Wyoming to pass a “good Samaritan” law, which could provide limited legal immunity to someone who calls for help during an overdose. 

It works like this: If two people are using illicit substances together and one overdoses, the person who calls 911 and tells emergency crews what happened would be immune from certain criminal charges, like possession or use of a controlled substance.

On May 9, the Kansas governor signed good Samaritan legislation that lawmakers there unanimously passed, making Wyoming the last state in the U.S. without such a law. 

Research suggests a fear of legal repercussions can make someone reluctant to call 911. Remove the fear of criminal charges and a person is more likely to seek help for a dying friend.

“My friend would still be here today if he could have just called for help,” Stone said.

There’s a renewed push for a good Samaritan law in Wyoming via the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, but legislation is early in the process, and a previous attempt was thwarted by a tie vote in the state Senate.

Why not Wyoming?

New Mexico became the first state to pass this type of good Samaritan law in 2007, according to an April report by the Legislative Analysis and Public Policy Association. 

“The purpose of these laws is to prioritize the overdose victim’s safety over arresting drug users by granting limited protection from criminal liability to people seeking medical assistance and, in most cases, to the overdose victim,” the analysts wrote. 

Since then, a variety of good Samaritan laws have sprung up around the country, the policy association found, varying in what protections they provide. 

Ten years after New Mexico, then-Rep. Charles Pelkey brought his own version of a good Samaritan bill to Wyoming. A lawyer and Laramie’s former Democratic representative, he had personal experience that informed the legislation.

“I was on drug court for six years here in Albany County, and I dealt with substance abuse and the issues that went along with it,” he told WyoFile. “Then as an attorney, I had a two-week period where I had three clients die: two died from overdoses.”

He recalled another instance where someone tried to help a woman who was overdosing by giving her more meth instead of calling 911. She survived, but he said these kinds of cases showed him a need here in Wyoming. 

 “My friend would still be here today if he could have just called for help.” DANIKA STONE

That was early on in the opioid crisis, and on the Senate floor in 2017, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) noted how many people had already died in Wyoming. 

“During the period [between] 2005 and 2014, 279 people died of drug overdoses in Wyoming,” he said. “That’s an astounding number. That’s bigger than the net amount of people in many of our small, tiny towns.”

Since 2017, the Wyoming Department of Health reported that annual overdose deaths have doubled in Wyoming, from 60 that year to 120 in 2023. And over that same time frame, 624 total Wyomingites have died after overdosing. 

But the legislation faced pushback in 2017 from lawmakers who were concerned about people misusing this immunity.

“This is a bill that the Judiciary Committee looked at in the interim, [and] actually failed the bill,” Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said. “There was some concerns that this potentially could be used as a loophole in some cases to avoid prosecution … I just tell you, there’s a lot more here than what it looks like on the surface.”

“[I] really, really think the intent of the bill is good,” then-Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) added. “But … what I see this bill doing [is], we’re giving immunity to people that are breaking the law. And to me, that’s a problem.”

However, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) said that the bill only gave immunity for misdemeanors, “and we don’t give death penalties to misdemeanor offenses.”

Bill opponents could take a Darwinian view that people who do something “dumb” should face deadly consequences, Scott noted, but he held a different perspective.

“If you take the point of view that every life is valuable, and these people, you can save them, they’re capable of becoming more mature, they’re capable of reforming, then … this bill is a good thing,” he said. 

Case added on the Senate floor that addiction is a mental illness, and emergency crews need to know what substance someone took to give proper treatment as soon as possible. 

There was also concern about the bill’s language potentially giving law enforcement too much leeway over searches when responding to an overdose. 

“Recognizing that this potentially allows law enforcement to ask questions of those individuals suffering from drug overdoses and committing crimes — really unlimited questioning, potentially to search that house, do additional law enforcement investigation duties under this particular circumstance,” Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) said. “So I would just urge the bringer of the bill caution regarding the carte blanche authority there given to law enforcement when a crime is being committed by individuals who are under the influence and potentially dying.”

Ultimately, after soaring through the House and committees, the bill died in the Senate on third reading in a 15-15 vote.

“It was heartbreaking,” Pelkey said. 

Try, try again

The latest effort in Wyoming is a bit more robust than the last, according to Stone.

“Every time I was told that it wasn’t a good time to pitch it at legislative session,” she said. “But finally, we just pushed it up, and some members of the local police station are pushing for it as well.”

In an April meeting of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, the effort’s backing became even clearer.

“We’ve got a group together that includes law enforcement from a couple of different levels, health providers, several health organizations, recovery organizations; it’s a pretty big group this time that has come together and discussed this at length,” said Andi Summerville, executive director for the Wyoming Association of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Centers. 

Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) questioned its biblical nickname, though: Are people in this situation actually “good Samaritans?” she wondered. Other types of good Samaritan laws include giving legal immunity to someone who tries to save a life via CPR or other measures. 

“It just kind of bothers me seeing this as a ‘good Samaritan’ law when I’m actually not a good person at that time,” she said. 

In her response, Jan Cartwright with the Wyoming Public Health Association said that helping each other is central to humanity, and this kind of law could help those with addiction support one another. 

“This is what we’re in this world for, we’re here together to help one another,” she said. “Are we going to let somebody who was shot illegally with a gun bleed out because they were in the vicinity of bad acts? I just really disagree with this premise that somehow if somebody has caused their possible death by using drugs that they should just be let to die.”

Ongoing crisis

Back in 2017, when the last good Samaritan bill was being considered in Wyoming, street fentanyl’s grip on the West was just beginning to tighten. Now, nearly half of last year’s overdose deaths involved the synthetic opioid.

It’s a great medication to treat certain types of severe pain, but it’s extremely potent. That can make it a cheap high, but also a dangerous one if the amount is a tiny bit off. And that can easily be the case when much of the street fentanyl in the West is doled out via Chinese labs sending supplies to Mexican cartels, which often work with U.S. citizens to smuggle it into the country via legal ports of entry, according to U.S. Homeland Security. 

Hunger for the drug was driven in large part by what is now seen as a mass over-prescription of addictive opioid painkillers like oxycodone. 

But now, two things are happening at once: millions of dollars in opioid settlement funds are flowing into local government coffers to address the crisis and drugs are becoming even more dangerous with additives like xylazine — a non-opioid sedative that cause difficulty breathing, severe withdrawal, necrotic wounds and can’t be reversed with naloxone, a drug that can counteract the effects of opioids. 

Kelsie Clutter (Courtesy of Danika Stone)

For Stone, she says it’s important that people in Wyoming understand the underlying mental illness that’s driving all this, and that the crisis is going to affect everyone.

“[P]eople should know things will change because of the sad reality of opioid and fake opioid prescriptions — it’s in our schools, in the possession of our friends, and in places where you’d least expect it to be,” she wrote. 

That’s why Stone continues to fight in the name of her friend, even planning to try and open a chapter of the End Overdose initiative in Wyoming to share more naloxone, fentanyl test strips and xylazine test strips. 

Ultimately, she argues this is about keeping people alive to seek help another day. People like her friend. 

“One thing that I do hate just about the state of Wyoming in general is that they [see] addiction as a choice, and they don’t see it as a disease,” she added. “My friend was sick … she was violently ill, she had to take more pills so she wasn’t in pain. She was sick. She needed help.”

“A lot of the pushback I get is, ‘Well, was she a good citizen?’” Stone said. “She was an amazing citizen. She loved God. She volunteered all the time. She was a cheerleader on the East High School squad. She was an amazing person … Anyone who dies, there’s no reason to be like, ‘Well, are they deserving?’”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.