On Monday, a measure that advocates called the strongest Good Samaritan law in the country went into effect in Maine, providing expanded protections for people at the scene of a drug overdose in an effort to save lives.
The law, which revises Maine’s existing Good Samaritan statute, ensures that those who make a good faith effort to seek medical assistance for a person experiencing an overdose and those at the scene who are rendering aid (which the law defines as looking after a person experiencing an overdose) are shielded along with the person overdosing.
The updated law protects people who fall into those categories from arrest or prosecution for most non-violent crimes and all drug crimes, bail and probation violations, and warrants for most non-violent crimes and all drug crimes. Those who commit violent acts, sex crimes or crimes against children are not protected under the expanded measure.
Advocates say the updated law is supported by years of research, including a 2018 study that found Good Samaritan statutes were associated with a 15% reduction in opioid-related overdose deaths.
“The expansion of the Good Samaritan law affirms what we already knew: People who use drugs do not deserve to die,” said Courtney Allen, organizing director of Maine Recovery Advocacy Project. “It sends a clear message that in Maine, we believe saving peoples’ lives is more important than charging them with minor criminal offenses.”
The recovery community launched their push to expand Maine’s original Good Samaritan law, signed in 2019, prior to the start of the 2022 legislative session. They argued that the 2019 measure, which created extremely limited protections from arrest at the scene of an overdose, was too small in scope and that many people still didn’t feel comfortable calling authorities about an overdose due to fear of arrest and prosecution. Creating a more expansive law would make people more likely to call for help and result in more lives saved, proponents said.
In 2021, Maine lost 636 people to drug overdose deaths — nearly two a day — a staggering toll that the recovery community pointed to as a tragic example of the need to update the 2019 law.
The effort to expand Maine’s Good Samaritan law came in the form of a bill, LD 1862, sponsored by Sen. Chloe Maxmin (D-Lincoln). For most of the 2022 legislative session, Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, opposed the measure. Mills — a former prosecutor who has vetoed a number of criminal justice reforms — put forward her own version of the legislation early in the process that would have maintained the limited set of offenses included in the existing Good Samaritan law and only expanded immunity for those offenses to people rendering aid.
Advocates in the recovery community sharply criticized that version of the bill, saying the governor’s amendment was unacceptable and would not save lives. At a press event in April, supporters of LD 1862 said they’d rather see Mills veto the strong version of the bill than accept a watered down measure. Later that day, after negotiations with the governor’s office, advocates announced they had reached a deal with Mills that included the stipulation protecting those at the scene of an overdose from arrest or prosecution for non-violent offenses, a key priority for recovery groups.
Following the bill’s passage through the House and Senate, Mills signed the measure into law in May.
“The expansion of Maine’s Good Samaritan law is an example of what happens when directly impacted people speak up about the policies and laws that need to change — and legislators listen,” Maxmin said, referencing the grassroots coalition of recovery advocates who pushed for the bill. “I am grateful to everyone who joined us in declaring that we will not lose one more person to avoidable overdose deaths without a fight. While there is more to do, we can be proud that the Maine legislature has led the nation in this first step prioritizing saving our citizens’ lives.”
Although it was mostly supported by Democrats and opposed by many Republicans, LD 1862 did receive some bipartisan backing, including from Republican Sen. Marianne Moore of Washington County, who co-sponsored the legislation.
“The people of Maine — and my constituents in Washington County, in particular — have lost too many of our loved ones to drug overdoses,” Moore said. “The expanded Good Samaritan law is an attempt to stop this unbearable loss of life and to give people another chance at recovery. Every person deserves to survive an overdose, and this law will give Mainers a better chance to do just that.”
While celebrating the implementation of the expanded law, Allen added that recovery advocates will continue to seek additional aid for people who use drugs in Maine along with reforms to other state laws.
“Today, our coalition reaffirms our commitment to building on this win by calling for an increased number of detox beds, investment in recovery support, and the decriminalization of personal possession of small quantities of drugs,” Allen said. “We will continue to fight for and with our community, today and every day.”