Drug Overdose Immunity and Good Samaritan Laws

Drug overdose death rates have continued to rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  More than 25,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2015, the majority caused by opioids.  Since 2010, thirty states have experienced increases in opioid deaths and the increase in deaths from 2014 to 2015 can most likely be attributed to heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

In 2016 nearly every state enacted legislation addressing opioids, including heroin and prescription drugs, and in 2017 the majority of states have again enacted legislation on this issue.  Policymakers have sought solutions that will help curb use and overdose by expanding access to treatment, increasing diversion opportunities and funding, modifying penalties, expanding Good Samaritan immunity, and increasing Naloxone access.

Opioid overdoses can be reversed with the timely administration of a medication called Naloxone.  Naloxone is a “rescue drug” that has been approved by the FDA and can be administered in a number of ways that make it possible for a lay person to use.  The drug has no abuse potential and counteracts the life-threatening effects of an overdose.  Seeking professional medical assistance after administering Naloxone, however, is important because it is a temporary drug and multiple administrations may be necessary if overdose symptoms return.

To encourage people to seek out medical attention for an overdose or follow-up care after Naloxone has been administered, 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of a Good Samaritan or 911 drug immunity law.  These laws generally provide immunity from arrest, charge or prosecution for certain controlled substance possession and paraphernalia offenses when a person who is either experiencing an opiate-related overdose or observing one calls 911 for assistance or seeks medical attention.  State laws are also increasingly providing immunity from violations of pretrial, probation or parole conditions and violations of protection or restraining orders.

These laws often require a caller to have reasonable belief that someone is experiencing an overdose emergency and is reporting that emergency in good faith.  Good faith is often defined to exclude seeking help during the course of the execution of an arrest or a search warrant.  Some laws also specify the immunity for covered offenses is not ground for suppression of evidence of other crimes.  Other requirements frequently include remaining on scene until help arrives and cooperating with emergency personnel when they arrive.