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How Good Samaritan Laws can curb overdose deaths

In 2021, the United States recorded a grim record – over 100,000 drug overdose deaths, the most ever.

Mississippi has seen its fair share, with regular reports of tragic overdose deaths in communities across the state. Many of these overdoses are attributed to fentanyl, a potent opioid that can result in overdose in very low quantities.

The growing presence of overdoses in Mississippi is largely attributed to the presence of fentanyl in street drugs. These reports have prompted a response from the state’s political leaders, including efforts to promote awareness of the problem and increase enforcement of drug penalties. These strategies are decades-old, all the way back to Nancy Reagan’s campaign to “Just Say No” and the War on Drugs that has persisted for decades, with limited success.

A new kind of policy aimed at stemming overdose deaths has swept the country in recent years. “Good Samaritan” laws get their name from the Biblical story, where a traveling Samaritan stopped on the road to help a man who was injured after he had been passed by several others.

Good Samaritan laws have emerged as a way to encourage reporting of overdoses by providing criminal immunity for those reporting the overdose. By shielding the individual reporting the overdose from prosecution for illegal drug use, Good Samaritan laws remove a powerful disincentive that can discourage individuals from seeking medical attention.

A review of Mississippi’s Good Samaritan laws by Grading Justice gives the state’s policies a letter grade of C. While Mississippi does have a Good Samaritan law, it is limited. Expanding the policy could help decrease overdose deaths and save lives.

Mississippi’s Good Samaritan law protects those who seek medical attention as well as those experiencing an overdose but only in certain circumstances. Mississippi’s law provides only very narrow protection against charges for possession of very small amounts of a controlled substance and possession of paraphernalia. Even small, user-level amounts of a controlled substance are not covered by the law. Additionally, individuals acting in good faith could still be liable for possession with intent to distribute, sale, or transfer of a controlled substance, or trafficking of a controlled substance.

Immunity in Mississippi’s law extends to both the individual experiencing the overdose and the individual reporting the overdose but does not explicitly protect other individuals in the immediate vicinity.

If policymakers are serious about saving lives and decreasing overdose deaths, expanding the state’s Good Samaritan law is a good place to start.

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