The Good Samaritan Law: How It Helps Prevent Fatal Drug Overdoses
Many fatal drug overdoses could be prevented if a witness calls 911 immediately and stays with the person until first responders arrive. However, many people do not seek emergency medical care for people they suspect have overdosed due to the fear of legal consequences related to drug use and possession. The Good Samaritan Law, which protects people from arrest, charge, or prosecution for drug possession, was created to encourage people to call 911 when they suspect someone has overdosed. Most states have enacted Good Samaritan laws to prevent fatal overdoses, and these states tend to have lower rates of deaths from opioid overdoses.1,2
In this article:
- What Is the Good Samaritan Law?
- What Protection Does a Good Samaritan Law Give Me?
- What Is the Purpose of the Good Samaritan Law?
- How Effective is the Good Samaritan Law in Reducing Fatal Overdoses?
- Overdose Prevention Steps You Can Take
What Is the Good Samaritan Law?
The Good Samaritan Law was crafted to encourage its community members to volunteer their services without compensation, assist others during an emergency, and ensure that the volunteer responding to the endangered party is acting responsibly.3
Therefore, as a member of the community, you can, in good faith, attempt to employ emergency medical services without being legally liable for consequences. Some emergency medical services you can employ include:
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Operating and using a defibrillator
- Administering first aid
- Administering Narcan (naloxone) for an opioid overdose
The Good Samaritan Law for fatal overdose prevention specifically protects witnesses who call 911 for an overdose from being prosecuted for possession of drugs or paraphernalia. The intention behind these laws is to encourage people to seek emergency medical services for someone as soon as possible, with the goal of reducing the number of deadly overdoses.
What Protection Does a Good Samaritan Law Give Me?
Drug Possession Immunity
If you witness a drug overdose and call 911, you have immunity against drug possession prosecution. However, this law does not protect drug possession with intent to distribute—only small amounts associated with use.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 47 states and D.C. have enacted a Good Samaritan law to help prevent fatal overdoses. However, these laws differ between states, with some varying in the types of drug offenses that are protected and whether immunity takes effect after being arrested and charged or before.1
The Good Samaritan laws for fatal overdose prevention require that the person calling 911 have a reasonable belief that someone has overdosed. This means that you cannot call 911 for an overdose while being arrested or searched in an attempt to gain immunity. Additionally, you are required to stay with the overdosing person until medical personnel arrive.
Protection Related to Emergency Medical Care
Broadly, the Good Samaritan Law provides protection against consequences related to performing emergency medicare care in settings where medical care is not available. For example, if you crack a person’s sternum while performing CPR, you won’t be held legally responsible for this since you were acting in good faith to save the person’s life. Likewise, if you administer Narcan to someone who has overdosed on an opioid, such as fentanyl, heroin, or oxycodone, and it is not enough to reverse the life-threatening effects, you are legally protected.
However, these laws do not protect against willful, purposeful misconduct or what would be considered gross negligence. Gross negligence is defined as an explicit and voluntary disregard of the need to execute reasonable care, which would reasonably cause predictable, foreseeable grave injury or harm to people, property, or both.4
What Is the Purpose of the Good Samaritan Law?
Drug overdose is the number one cause of accidental death in the United States, with the most common drug involved being opioids, such as heroin, fentanyl, and prescription painkillers.4
In efforts to address the opioid crisis and epidemic, Good Samaritan laws were enacted in 47 states and D.C. to reduce the number of preventable overdose deaths. The purpose of this overdose prevention law is to encourage both witnesses and victims of a drug overdose to call 911 by protecting them against drug-related charges. The thinking is that if people are more likely to call 911, then more lives can be saved.4
How Effective is the Good Samaritan Law in Reducing Fatal Overdoses?
Research indicates that the Good Samaritan laws have resulted in lower rates of opioid overdose fatalities among states who have Good Samaritan laws—compared to overdose death rates before thaw laws were enacted and overdose fatalities in states without these laws.1
Research also revealed that people are more likely to call 911 if they are aware these Good Samaritan laws exist. That said, awareness of these laws and their protections varies significantly across states and jurisdictions, among the general public and police.1
Moreover, a 2016 study aimed at exploring the rate of awareness around the Good Samaritan Law among young adults who misused prescription opioids found that fewer than half of their sample (45.5%) were even aware of the state’s Good Samaritan Law; however, 95.5% reported being willing to call 911 in the event they personally overdosed.7
The study found that knowledge of the law was related to nine key factors, most of which being related to familiarity with corollaries of substance-use-related experiences:7
- Older age
- Being white
- History of incarceration
- History of using substances intravenously
- Lifetime heroin use
- Witnessing or experiencing an overdose
- Having heard of Narcan (naloxone)
- Knowing where to obtain naloxone
- Experience administering naloxone
Of course, if people aren’t aware of these protections, then they are less likely to call 911 and seek emergency medical care for someone who is potentially overdosed.
What to Do if Someone Has Overdosed
If you encounter someone who you suspect has overdosed, you can help save their life by calling 911 and providing emergency medical care. Narcan is a life-saving opioid overdose medication that rapidly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, effectively buying the person time while waiting for first responders to arrive. It only works for an overdose on an opioid; however, if you aren’t sure what the person overdosed on, it’s safe to administer Narcan since it won’t have any effect if it turns out they’ve overdosed on another type of drug.
If you suspect someone has overdosed, here is what you should do to help:
- Check for signs of overdose such as stopped or slowed breathing, gurgling, choking, blue lips or fingers, and not reacting when you rub your knuckles on their chest.
- Call 911 immediately and provide the operator with as much as information as possible, such as age, gender, weight, substance taken, amount taken, and your location.
- If you have Narcan (naloxone) on you, administer the naloxone, following the instructions on the packet. Chances are, it will be Narcan, the nasal spray formulation, which is very easy for the lay person to administer.
- Give the person rescue breaths by first making sure their mouth is clear, then tilting their head back, lifting their chin, pinching their nose, and giving one breath very five seconds, ensuring the chest is rising and falling.
- If the person is unresponsive, keep giving doses of Narcan every three minutes, alternating nostrils.
- If they continue to be unresponsive, continue to perform rescue breathing.
- Make sure you stay by the person’s side until first responders arrive.
- If they begin breathing again, you can gently move them into the recovery position on their side, with their hands supporting their head and top leg pushed forward, stopping them from rolling onto their stomach.
How to Administer Naloxone
Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that attaches to the opioid receptors in the brain and can reverse and effectively block the effects of opioids.8 If you or someone else overdose on an opioid and your breathing has slowed or stopped because of an overdose, naloxone quickly restores your breathing.8
If you find yourself in a medical emergency related to substance use where naloxone needs to be administered, either for yourself or a loved one, the most user-friendly and most readily accessible version of the medication is a pre-packaged nasal spray, Narcan, that is easier for loved ones and bystanders to use without formal training. While the overdosed person lays on their back, insert the spray into one of their nostrils and pump the spray.8
Once naloxone enters the individual’s system, it only remains in the body for 30-90 minutes.8 Even after receiving the naloxone, the individual could still overdose as the naloxone wears off, which is important to remember since some opioids, like fentanyl, are extremely potent and may require you to administer more than one dose.8 Because of this, you must call 911 after the administration of naloxone so that the individual can receive immediate medical care.
If you think you may need naloxone for yourself or someone else, most pharmacies carry naloxone, and depending on the state you reside in, you may not even need a prescription for it. Alternatively, if you cannot get naloxone from a pharmacy, you can usually get it for free from a local community-based program, health department, or local public health group.8
Naloxone Use Immunity
Administering naloxone to save a person’s life falls under the Good Samaritan laws, which means that if you administer naloxone to another person in an attempt to save their life, you are protected from possible legal consequences. This is because you were acting in good faith to provide someone with emergency medical care.
- U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2021). Drug Misuse: Most States Have Good Samaritan Laws and Research Indicates They May Have Positive Effects.
- Adusumalli J, Benkhadra K, Murad, M.H. (2018). Good Samaritan Laws and Graduate Medical Education: A Tristate Survey. Mayo Clin Proc Innov Qual Outcomes, 2(4), 336-341.
- California Legislative Information (2022). Health and Safety Code: Division 2.5. Emergency medical Services [1797 – 1863] – Chapter 9. Liability Limitation [1799.100 – 1799.112]
- West, B. & Varicallo, M. (2021, September 20). Good Samaritan Laws. StatPearls.
- Nguyen, H., & Parker, B.R. (2018). Assessing the Effectiveness of New York’s 911 Good Samaritan Law-Evidence from a Natural Experiment. International Journal on Drug Policy, 58, 149-156.
- Banta-Green, C.J., Beletsky, L., Schoppe, J.A., Coffin, P.O., & Kuszler, P.C. (2013). Police Officers’ and Paramedics’ Experiences with Overdose and Their Knowledge and Opinions of Washington State’s Drug Overdose–Naloxone–Good Samaritan Law. Journal of Urban Health, 90(6), 1102-1111.
- Evans, T.I., Handland, S.E., Clark, M.A., Green, T.C., & Marshall, B.D.L. (2016). Factors Associated with Knowledge of a Good Samaritan Law Among Young Adults Who Use Prescription Opioids Non-Medically. Harm Reduction Journal, 13(24), 1-6.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2022). What is Naloxone?