Police car.

New Data Highlights Complexity of Good Samaritan Overdose Law Landscape

By David Momjian

Since 1999, over 800,000 people have died from a drug overdose in the United States, with more than half of those deaths (500,000) resulting from opioid overdose.

Additionally, all 50 states have experienced a spike in overdose deaths in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 12-month period ending in May 2020, 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States; the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

To combat the rising death toll from drug overdoses, 47 state legislatures and the District of Columbia have passed Good Samaritan laws (GSLs) to protect bystanders from criminal prosecution if they call for medical assistance during a drug overdose. Bystanders to a drug overdose are often worried that by calling for help, they could be arrested for drug possession or evicted by the police, who often arrive first at the scene of a 911 call, even if it is a medical emergency.

A new dataset built by the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and funded by Vital Strategies, covers the evolution of GSLs in the United States from January 1, 2007, to June 1, 2021.

Some notable findings from the data include:

  • Only three states have yet to enact any GSLs related to drug overdoses: Wyoming, Kansas, and Texas.
  • Thirty-seven states’ Good Samaritan laws include some kind of legal protection from drug paraphernalia laws.
  • The landscape is split between jurisdictions with GSLs that consider reporting an overdose to be a mitigating factor in sentencing, and those that do not. Slightly more states do not consider reporting a mitigating factor (25 states do not, 23 states do)

A 2021 study carried out by the U.S. Government Accountability Office has shown that GSLs have been beneficial overall to saving lives, but also found that law enforcement often lags behind in training and awareness of such laws. Databases such as this one will help educate individuals about legal protections around reporting drug overdoses, and may also help shape future legislation and public health policy in states lacking such laws.

David Momjian is a 3L at Temple University Beasley School of law, and was a 2021 Summer Intern at the Center for Public Health Law Research.

Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research

Based at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, the Center for Public Health Law Research supports the widespread adoption of scientific tools and methods for mapping and evaluating the impact of law on health. It works by developing and teaching public health law research and legal epidemiology methods (including legal mapping and policy surveillance); researching laws and policies that improve health, increase access to care, and create or remove barriers to health (e.g., laws or policies that create or remove inequity); and communicating and disseminating evidence to facilitate innovation.

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