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Former State Prosecutor and Criminal Trial Attorney

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A Bad Combination: A Drug Overdose and No Good Samaritan Protection for Would-be Rescuers

Good Samaritan laws were originally designed to shield doctors and those with medical training from liability as a result of rendering aid to injured persons. A layperson attempting to assist someone in medical need would still be liable if his or her assistance was negligent and resulted in that person’s condition worsening.

Gradually, Good Samaritan laws have come to encompass untrained persons, so long as they didn’t commit any serious errors. Many states, however, still retain the original design of these laws so that a layperson is at risk for liability if he or she commits mistakes while rendering aid.

In the case of drugs, people who might have come to the assistance of someone suffering from an overdose have hesitated or refused to call for help. A person experiencing an overdose has usually taken an illegal substance and may be subject to arrest, and, in some cases, friends or bystanders who called 911 or took the victim to a hospital were finding themselves subject to arrest for simple possession or worse. Individuals have reportedly refused to call police or seek medical assistance for their friends, who subsequently died, due to fear about their involvement with the authorities. Drug users are wary of calling for help if they are overdosing, knowing that they risk arrest and prosecution.

As a result, states like New Mexico and Washington have passed Good Samaritan laws that offer at least limited immunity from prosecution to those who call for help because of an overdose. The New Mexico law, passed in 2007, prevents prosecution for drug possession based on evidence gained as a result of seeking medical assistance.

Critics of the laws maintain that they do nothing more than protecting illegal drug users. Any law that possibly protects criminal activity is subject to intense public scrutiny, regardless of the humane intent behind them. Illinois attempted, but failed, to pass such a law in early 2010. States like New Jersey are still debating the merits of such measures.

In Washington State, drug overdoses had overtaken car accidents as the major cause of accidental death and the legislature reacted. Politicians do not want to appear soft on crime. But as Roosevelt University researchers have commented, once children of the wealthy begin to succumb to drug overdoses, states will continue to be reluctant to revise their laws to address this growing problem.

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