Many overdose deaths could be prevented if someone would call 911 for emergency help—but witnesses are too often afraid to call for fear of being arrested. Lives are lost that might have been saved.

Standard Good Samaritan Law

A standard Good Samaritan Law protects witnesses from liability (meaning, the witness can't be sued for damages) as well as from prosecution if a victim is injured during the course of a rescue attempt. These laws also state that in a life-threatening situation, implied consent is given to administer aid. If the victim is unresponsive, or a minor in a dire situation, help may be provided without worry over liability.

These laws exist to encourage bystanders to seek help for anyone in a life-threatening situation.

911 Good Samaritan Law

When someone witnesses an overdose, he may not want to call 911 for fear of arrest, identification, or other police involvement.1 These laws grant individuals varying levels of immunity from liability and prosecution if someone calls 911 during a drug overdose. These 911 Good Samaritan laws prioritize the victim’s safety and resuscitation over arresting drug users.

How these laws save lives

There is a reluctance within the drug-using population to seek help when witnessing an overdose. Data suggests that Emergency Medical Services are called in the event of an overdose less than 56% of the time.2

Many factors contribute to this hesitancy to call for help. A big one is that police often accompany emergency responders, looking to arrest drug users at the scene. According to one study, police arrive at the scene of 42% of reported overdoses to search and interrogate those who made the 911 call.3 If the overdose results in a fatality, police officers have been known to arrest the callers and charge them with murder or manslaughter. Looking to avoid arrest, many witnesses will attempt to resuscitate on their own. Or they’ll feel forced to abandon the victim.

Medical Amnesty Laws on college campuses

These laws are almost identical to 911 Good Samaritan laws, but they’re specific to a college or university campus setting. Applicable to minors, these laws can remove the penalties associated with underage drinking and drug use when help is obtained for a friend. The goal of the Medical Amnesty law is to prioritize medical necessities over penalties or legal consequences.

Research indicates that Medical Amnesty laws, which exist in some capacity at over 240 universities, are making tremendous strides. Researchers at Cornell University found an increase in the number of calls for alcohol and drug related emergencies, and a decrease in students’ fear to call for help. In addition, the number of follow-up counseling sessions after a drug or alcohol emergency doubled from 22% to 52%.4

911 Good Samaritan Laws are effective

By removing barriers associated with seeking help, these laws have been proven to improve the survival odds for someone suffering from an overdose. An evaluation of Washington State’s 911 Good Samaritan Law found that 88% of opioid users were more likely to call 911 in the event of an overdose.5

Current status of 911 Good Samaritan Laws in the United States

The first 911 Good Samaritan Law was passed by New Mexico’s state legislature in 2007, and these laws have since been established in 32 states and Washington, D.C. But the exact contents of each law varies by state. For example, Alaska’s 911 Good Samaritan Law only allows an emergency call to be taken into account during sentencing for drug-related charges, while Connecticut provides full legal immunity for those who place emergency calls in good faith related to a drug overdose.

1. Kim D, Irwin K, Khoshnood K. “Expanded Access to Naloxone: Options for Critical Response to the Epidemic of Opioid Overdose Mortality.” American Journal of Public Health. March 2009.
2. Kim D, Irwin K, Khoshnood K. “Expanded Access to Naloxone: Options for Critical Response to the Epidemic of Opioid Overdose Mortality.” American Journal of Public Health. March 2009.
3. Kim D, Irwin K, Khoshnood K. “Expanded Access to Naloxone: Options for Critical Response to the Epidemic of Opioid Overdose Mortality.” American Journal of Public Health. March 2009.
4. Lewis DK, Marchell TC. “Safety first: A medical amnesty approach to alcohol poisoning at a U.S. university.” Gannett Health Services, Cornell University. 7 Feb 2006.
5. “Washington’s 911 Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Law: Initial Evaluation Results.” University of Washington, ADAI. November 2011.