By Sheilah M. Powell
Since 1992, more than 932,000 people have died from a drug overdose. It is now mid-2022 and since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, drug poisonings have skyrocketed to unprecedented numbers. We are losing generations of people and the tragedy is that most if not all of these deaths could have been prevented.
The chance of surviving an overdose depends on many factors, but perhaps one of the most impactful is how fast one receives medical treatment and assistance. Oftentimes, people wait or hesitate to call for medical help or the police in fear of legal involvement. People who use drugs are still a very criminalized population, and even with police diversion programs where people are offered treatment instead of incarceration, people who use drugs are oftentimes not entirely – and rightly so – trusting of law enforcement officials or medical personnel.
To save lives and to encourage individuals to call the police in the event of a drug poisoning, many states have enacted Good Samaritan laws that protect from prosecution for certain drug offenses for the person who called the police or ambulance, as well as the person who overdosed. People witnessing a possible overdose event should not fear reprisal for trying to save that person’s life – and a legal intervention seems like the perfect way to guarantee that. But not all “Good Sam” laws are created equal.
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, most states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of a Good Sam law. The scope of what offenses and violations are covered by immunity protection varies widely by state. Some states have opted for more restricted immunity while others, like Vermont, have provided immunity from a more thorough list of controlled-substance offenses. Some states have sub-par Good Sam laws that impose requirements like police cooperation or treatment as a condition of immunity. Many states are constantly working on expanding the Good Sam laws to be more recovery-informed and effective. For example, Maine’s expanded Good Sam law just went into effect earlier this month after members of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project worked tirelessly to expand the existing law under the Expand Good Sam 4 ME Campaign.
While some states have ineffective or underutilized Good Sam laws, some states have NONE. According to The Network for Public Health Law, two states have no Good Sam law in effect – Kansas, Texas, and Wyoming. To review the differences in each state’s law (as of December 2021), check out this 50-state survey. What does your state’s Good Sam look like?
A blanket law that broadly protects people from prosecution is not enough to ensure that people will call 911 if they witness an accidental drug overdose. The law needs to be robust and protect from arrest and other ramifications that exist for those who are using drugs. Some other barriers to calling 911 in the event of an emergency are probation or parole violations, immigration, and child welfare consequences, outstanding warrants or restraining orders, or drug-induced homicide charges.
Reducing barriers to calling 911 has the potential to save victims of overdose from severe injury and death; this is needed NOW more than ever. As recovery advocates, we must consistently maintain robust and effective Good Sam laws so we can stop those from needlessly dying.