The chance of surviving an overdose, like that of surviving a heart attack, greatly depends on how fast one receives medical assistance. Witnesses to an overdose, however, often hesitate to seek help or simply do not call for assistance. Research confirms the most common reason people cite for not calling 911 is fear of police involvement.
In an effort to encourage more people to call 911 in the event of an overdose, 40 states and the District of Columbia have passed “Good Samaritan” laws (as of July 15, 2017). The vast majority of these laws provide protection from prosecution for low-level drug offenses, like sale or use of a controlled substance or paraphernalia, for the person seeking medical assistance as well as the person who overdosed.
Some limited states provide broader protections, including covering arrest, probation and parole violations, and more. Vermont’s Good Samaritan law is the most expansive—it provides immunity for any drug-related offense, including drug sales.
Reducing barriers to calling 911 has the potential to save victims of overdose from severe injury and death.
Initial results from an evaluation of Washington State’s Good Samaritan law, adopted in 2010, found that 88% of people who use opioids said they would be more likely, and less afraid, to call 911 in the event of a future overdose after learning about the law.
Good Samaritan policies on college campuses have also been proven to encourage students to call for help in the event of an alcohol or other drug overdose.
Many states have sub-par Good Samaritan laws that impose requirements like police cooperation or drug treatment as a condition of immunity, which means they are not optimally utilized. Moreover, protection from prosecution is not enough to ensure that people will call 911. Many people who use drugs do not understand the difference between arrest and prosecution.
People may also fear consequences beyond a possession charge. Probation and parole violations, immigration and child welfare consequences, outstanding warrants, trespassing, or sales or drug-induced homicide charges can be equal barriers to calling 911. Good Samaritan laws need to provide the broadest protections possible in order to effectively encourage people to seek medical assistance in the event of an overdose.
Many Good Samaritan laws pass without any supplemental implementation or education efforts, which means that people are unaware of the law and what it does. One study found, for instance, that two thirds of the 22 clients interviewed at a needle exchange in Baltimore did not know there was a Good Samaritan law. The Washington evaluation also found that many police officers and paramedics were unaware of their state law. These studies underscore the need for continued training, education and collaboration with the public and with law enforcement.
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) was instrumental in passing Good Samaritan laws in California, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Vermont, and a host of other states. We continue to educate community members, service providers, and law enforcement about these laws, and also work to improve them.
For example, New Mexico’s law does not protect an individual on probation or parole. DPA is working to broaden the law to cover these individuals. This will improve emergency overdose response and save lives.