Every day, 115 Americans die from an opioid overdose, with most victims under 35 years of age. And from 2014 to 2015, drug overdose deaths increased by 19 percent among teens. State policymakers can play a unique role in mitigating the harm, with two policy strategies emerging as particularly important in preventing overdose deaths: Good Samaritan laws (which encourage witnesses of drug overdoses to call 911 by offering legal protections to the caller) and laws governing Naloxone prescriptions (a drug that can prevent someone from dying when they overdose on opioids).
Knowledge of a state’s laws in these areas and how they match up with the intensity of that state’s opioid epidemic can bolster public understanding of available protections, and can inform policy design for states that currently lack these laws. Laws that do exist often vary from state to state, and knowledge of this variation can inform the development of more consistent laws that are appropriately tailored to the severity of the opioid epidemic in each state.
Strength of Good Samaritan laws and rates of opioid overdoses at the state level
While emergency medical services are needed immediately when someone overdoses, one study found that emergency services are called in only 10–56 percent of overdose events. Fear of criminal prosecution represents a major barrier to seeking help, especially if the caller is also using illegal substances. Good Samaritan laws provide some legal protections for people who call for help during an overdose event; policymakers hope that such laws will encourage more calls. Emerging evidence suggests that this approach may be effective. After passing a Good Samaritan law, the state of Washington surveyed opiate users and found that 88 percent were more likely than before the law’s passage to call emergency services in an overdose event.