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Effective, Equity-focused Overdose Good Samaritan Laws: Maine Leads the Way

May 2, 2024


Overdose Good Samaritan laws, which generally provide limited protections from arrest or prosecution for drug-related crimes, have been passed in most states. The limited protection these laws offer is often insufficient. A recently passed law in Maine that provides immunity from all but a small number of crimes, while not perfect, is a step towards improving the effectiveness of these laws.

When crafting a law or policy, it can be helpful to start with a basic question: What is the law intended to accomplish?

The underlying goal of the body of law often referred to as the “War on Drugs” is typically to stigmatize and punish people who use drugs. Enormous effort is directed towards those goals; indeed, more arrests are made each year for drug violations than for every other category of crime. The vast majority of those arrests — approximately 87 percent , or more than 1.3 million in 2019 — are for possession, not sales or trafficking. As with nearly every other aspect of the criminal legal system, Black people are arrested, charged, and imprisoned for drug crimes at much higher rates than white people, despite the fact that people of both races use illicit drugs at about the same rates

People who use drugs — particularly people of color — know this, which is why they are often reluctant to call for help during an overdose. Overdose Good Samaritan laws have been proposed as a solution to this problem. While these laws vary by state, most provide immunity from arrest or prosecution for low-level drug crimes to the person who calls for help in an overdose, as well the person who overdosed. Evidence of the effectiveness of these laws is mixed, with most studies showing that those that provide more protection do reduce overdose deaths, but not by very much.

This is likely because most overdose Good Samaritan laws do not address many of the concerns of people who are deciding whether to call for help. Those concerns include being arrested for crimes not covered by the law, or on an outstanding warrant. Additionally, many fear that calling for help might result in eviction, an investigation by Child Protective Services, or loss of federal or state benefits.  These fears are well-founded, as many people who call for help in an overdose are arrested for petty crimes like trespassing, or on a warrant for a minor crime like an unpaid traffic ticket.  Still others simply decide not to call at all.   

However, one state has enacted an overdose Good Samaritan law that makes criminal immunity the default, not the exception. In Maine, the person who calls for help, anyone who renders aid, and the person who is experiencing a suspected drug-related overdose are all immune from arrest and prosecution for all but a small number of crimes. The excluded crimes – things like kidnapping, robbery, and sexual assault – do not generally apply in the context of a call for help in an overdose.  

The Maine law is not perfect. For example, it does nothing to address the many non-criminal consequences like evictions and CPS investigations that may occur when authorities are alerted to an overdose.  However, it is a step in the right direction, and the only such law that is compatible with the aim towards which Good Samaritan laws should be directed: that of saving lives.

This post was written by Corey Davis, Director, Harm Reduction Legal Project, Network for Public Health Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of (and should not be attributed to) RWJF.