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Deserving Life: How Judicial Application of Medical Amnesty Laws Perpetuates Substance Use Stigma


Scott Koven


December 29, 2023

To combat the continued devastation wrought by the opioid crisis in the United States, forty-eight states have passed medical amnesty (or “Good Samaritan”) laws. These laws provide varying forms of protection from criminal punishment for certain individuals if medical assistance is sought at the scene of an overdose. Thus far, the nascent scholarly conversation on medical amnesty has focused on the types of statutory protections available and the effectiveness of these statutes. To summarize, although medical amnesty laws have helped combat drug overdose, the statutes are replete with arbitrary limitations that cabin their life-saving potential.

This Note extends the dialogue on medical amnesty in two ways. First, it examines how judges, in applying these laws, can either frustrate or promote their life-saving purpose. Second, this Note connects the conversation on medical amnesty laws to the broader context they have entered—namely, the United States’ troubled history with the criminalization of addiction.

Medical amnesty laws reflect a legislative interest in health over punishment. Today, substance use disorder is recognized as a medical, neurological issue and the overdose crisis is recognized as a public health phenomenon. This Note argues that, both in statutory language and judicial application, gaps in the medical amnesty response stray from this reality and instead reflect the stigmatizing, racist normative view promoted during the War on Drugs—that substance use is a moral failing, symptomatic of a lack of personal responsibility. This Note’s key point is that, as long as legislators and judges fail to acknowledge, interrogate, and learn from the United States’ prior failures in responding to addiction, fatal gaps will continue to exist both in medical amnesty laws and in the broader response to the drug overdose crisis.


Scott Koven, Note, Deserving Life: How Judicial Application of Medical Amnesty Laws Perpetuates Substance Use Stigma, 80 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1745 (2023).