Recent celebrity drug overdose deaths—most notably Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman—shine a spotlight on states' efforts to combat overdose death by passing so-called "Good Samaritan" laws.

With drug overdoses in the United States tripling since 1990—primarily due to increasing rates of abuse and misuse of prescription opioid painkillers—states have enacted laws providing levels of immunity for persons who call 911 or seek other help for themselves or others.

A bill introduced in Maryland this week would offer limited immunity for nonviolent drug possession if the person contacts law enforcement to report an overdose. Utah's House recently granted unanimous approval to a similar bill.

Drug overdoses are a major cause of preventable death in the United States. Increasingly, this includes prescription opioids, along with illegal opiate drugs like heroin. (Opioids are synthetic substances that mimic the narcotic effect of opium, from which heroin is derived.)

Between 1999 and 2010, deaths caused by prescription painkillers outpaced deaths from illicit drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Deaths caused by opioids are often preventable because it can take hours for an overdose to become lethal, time during which resuscitation is possible if medical attention is sought.

Often, however, medical assistance is not sought by those in need or their companions for fear of being arrested for use, possession or other drug-related crimes. In recent years, states have enacted overdose immunity laws intended to reduce the number of overdose-related deaths by encouraging people to seek help. 

So-called “Good Samaritan” laws regarding drug overdoses, fall into two primary categories. The first encourages calling 911 to seek medical assistance for yourself or someone experiencing an overdose by providing criminal immunity for both the person in need and the person who sought help. The second provides varying levels of criminal or civil immunity for those involved with the prescription, possession, or emergency administration of the opioid antidote naloxone to reverse the effects of the overdose.

The immunity provided by 911 laws is generally limited to low-level drug crimes, and does not provide protection from more serious offenses such as manufacturing, trafficking or distribution of controlled substances. The immunity provided by prescription or administration laws is generally limited to immunity from criminal offenses related to the specific substance naloxone.

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