"Caught with a body" yet protected by law? Calling 911 for opioid overdose in the context of the Good Samaritan Law

Int J Drug Policy. 2017 Dec;50:82-89. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2017.09.010. Epub 2017 Oct 16.


Background: To address soaring opioid overdose fatality rates, 41U.S. states have passed Good Samaritan Laws (GSLs) extending legal immunity to overdose bystanders who call for emergency assistance. This study, conducted during the period that followed implementation of a GSL, aimed to characterize current factors determining the decision to call for emergency medical help (911) at the scene of an overdose with specific attention to exploring the role of the GSL as one such factor in decision-making.

Methods: We conducted 22 in-depth interviews with needle exchange program clients in Baltimore, MD.

Results: Most participants reported calling 911 or witnessing a 911 call after drug overdose, but widely remained fearful of arrest for drug or paraphernalia possession, homicide, outstanding warrants, and/or trespassing. These concerns were underpinned by a history of police maltreatment and threat, and strong distrust of police; concerns which were specifically related to perceptions of police conduct at the scene of an overdose as well as perceptions of police conduct in general. Additional considerations included: fear of losing housing, informal shelter or custody of children; encountering social stigma; and facing violent and fatal repercussions at the hands of local drug dealers. Additionally, some participants did not perceive a significant enough medical risk to call 911. Two thirds of participants were unaware of the GSL. Some believed a GSL would positively impact law enforcement behaviour and increase the likelihood of a bystander call; but due to distrust of police, others believed the GSL would have little influence on bystander decisions.

Conclusion: Insights from overdose bystanders during the post-implementation period of a Good Samaritan Law demonstrate persistent deterrents to bystanders calling 911 after overdose. Additional measures are needed to align policy aims with lived experiences of overdose bystanders, and to achieve overdose prevention aims.

Keywords: Drug overdose; Emergency treatment; Harm reduction; Law enforcement; Opioid-related disorders; Public policy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects
  • Decision Making*
  • Drug Overdose / psychology*
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Helping Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Jurisprudence*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Police*
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / psychology*


  • Analgesics, Opioid