How Good Samaritan Laws Work

Special-interest Good Samaritan Laws

heroin user naloxone heroin user naloxone
Heroin user Denise Williams (C) learns how to administer naloxone from trainer Kelly Johnson (L). Williams was saved by the drug and wanted to help others. Many Good Samaritan laws protect people who give naloxone to overdosing addicts Bryan Chan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Over the 50-plus years since the first Good Samaritan law was passed in America, various spin-offs have been enacted to protect people in specific circumstances. One example involves food banks. In 1996, with 14 billion pounds (6 billion kilograms) of food being sent to landfills annually while millions of Americans went hungry, the federal government enacted the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, aimed at encouraging food donations by protecting from liability both the food donor and recipient agency, should someone become ill after eating a donated food product [sources: United States Government Publishing Office, Food Donation Connection].

More recently, many colleges and universities have been adopting medical amnesty laws, aka 911 Lifeline or 911 Good Samaritan Laws. These rules generally stipulate that anyone who calls for assistance for themselves or an inebriated friend in urgent need of medical attention will be granted limited legal immunity from the penalties associated with underage drinking [source: The Medical Amnesty Initiative].

More than 240 universities in 35 states currently have some type of medical amnesty legislation in place, and it's helping to save lives. Students' 911 calls have increased on campuses with these laws in place, often dramatically. And at Cornell University, which adopted a medical amnesty law in 2002, studies revealed a doubling of follow-up counseling sessions attended by students, from 22 percent to 52 percent in 2004 [sources: The Medical Amnesty Initiative, Lewis and Marchell].

In a similar move, people trying to combat America's skyrocketing opioid problem are pushing for Good Samaritan-type laws to protect those calling for help when someone has overdosed. Many won't if they have also been using drugs, fearing they will be arrested on drug-related charges when help arrives. Yet such inaction can mean the difference between life and death for the person who OD'd.

As of 2018, 40 states have 911 Good Samaritan laws on the books, while more than 42 states and the District of Columbia have passed naloxone access laws, which generally allow certain people to obtain naloxone, a synthetic drug that can revive someone suffering from an opioid overdose [sources: Weinstein, Drug Policy Alliance.