The 911 Good Samaritan Law Is Working

Friday, November 18, 2011

In 2010, the ACLU of Washington was instrumental in the passage of the nation’s second “911 Good Samaritan” law. New research from the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute shows that the 911 Good Samaritan law works.

Washington’s 911 Good Samaritan law provides immunity from drug possession charges to people who seek medical assistance in drug overdose situations. The immunity is also extended to the person suffering the overdose.

The purpose of the law is to encourage people to get help during overdose situations. Previous research has shown that people who witness overdoses often fear calling for help because they think law enforcement will be called and get them in trouble. The law was passed because of a troubling increase in the number of overdose deaths in Washington. For the last few years, more people have died from overdoses than motor vehicle crashes in this state.

The ongoing study is being conducted by University of Washington researchers who have just released some initial results on the the law's effectiveness. Some of the key findings include the following:

  • Opiate overdoses are common­ -- 42% of opiate users surveyed at syringe exchange and 62% of Seattle police ( reported being present at the scene of a serious opiate overdose in the prior year. 
  • Police were at the scene of most overdoses for which 911 was called, according to drug users and paramedics.
  • 88% of opiate users indicated that now that they were aware of the law, they would be more likely to call 911 during future overdoses.   

These findings illustrate that people are more willing to call for help as a result of the law’s existence. Nonetheless, it’s very important that the public continues to be educated about the law. As stated by the lead researcher on the project, Caleb Banta-Green, “these findings indicate we need to make sure we’re getting information into the hands of police and the community at large.” To that end, efforts are being made to educate law enforcement about the law.

The research is evidence that treating drug abuse as a public health issue instead of crime makes sense. Someone witnessing an overdose shouldn’t be scared to call 911; they should be encouraged to do so. Saving a human life is more important than arresting someone for drug possession. That’s why 911 Good Samaritan laws are so important.  

To see the preliminary evaluation of the law, visit If you want to learn more about Washington’s 911 Good Samaritan law, visit