Good Samaritan laws and overdose mortality in the United States in the fentanyl era

BACKGROUND: As of July 2018, 45 United States (US) states and the District of Columbia have enacted an overdose Good Samaritan law (GSL). These laws, which provide limited criminal immunity to individuals who request assistance during an overdose, may be of importance in the current wave of the overdose epidemic, which is driven primarily by illicit opioids including heroin and fentanyl. There are substantial differences in the structures of states’ GSL laws which may impact their effectiveness. This study compared GSLs which have legal provisions protecting from arrest and laws which have more limited protections.

METHODS: Using national county-level overdose mortality data from 3109 US counties, we examined the association of enactment of GSLs with protection from arrest and GSLs with more limited protections with subsequent overdose mortality between 2013 and 2018. Since GSLs are often enacted in conjunction with Naloxone Access Laws (NAL), we examined the effect of GSLs separately and in conjunction with NAL. We conducted these analyses using hierarchical Bayesian spatiotemporal Poisson models.

RESULTS: GSLs with protections against arrest enactment in conjunction with a NAL were associated with 7% lower rates of all overdose deaths (rate ratio (RR): 0.93% Credible Interval (CI): 0.89-0.97), 10% lower rates in opioid overdose deaths (RR: 0.90; CI: 0.85-0.95) and 11% lower rates of heroin/synthetic overdose mortality (RR: 0.89; CI: 0.82-0.96) two years after enactment, compared to rates in states without these laws. Significant reductions in overdose mortality were not seen for GSLs with protections for charge or prosecution.

CONCLUSION: GSLs with more expansive legal protections combined with a NAL, were associated with lower rates of overdose deaths, although these risk reductions take time to manifest. Policy makers should consider enacting and implementing more expansive GSLs with arrest protections to increase the likelihood people will contact emergency services in the event of an overdose.

Full citation:
Hamilton L, Davis CS, Kravitz-Wirtz N, Ponicki W, Cerda M (2021).
Good Samaritan laws and overdose mortality in the United States in the fentanyl era
International of Journal of Drug Policy, 97, 103294. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103294.