States Adopting Harm Reduction Laws to Prevent Overdose Deaths

Drug overdose deaths have more than doubled between 1999 and 2010. In 2010, these deaths, from both prescription drug and illicit drug overdoses, surpassed traffic accidents as the number one cause of death for persons less than 65 years old. Sixteen states, beginning with New Mexico in 2001, have passed harm reduction laws to increase the availability of naloxone, an overdose antidote administered by injection or nasal spray. The same number of states have passed Good Samaritan laws to address the fear of criminal repercussions for bystanders and overdose victims who report overdoses. At the beginning of Feb. 2014, seven additional states had new legislation pending and another seven states were considering amendments to current laws.  

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Infographic: Drug Overdoses and State Policy

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have increased steadily in the past 20 years.

Drug overdose death rates have been rising steadily since 1992, with a 102 percent increase from 1999 to 2010.1 

  • In 2010, drug overdoses led to 38,329 deaths in the United States. By comparison, traffic accidents were responsible for 33,687 deaths, firearms killed 31,672 people, and falling was cited for the cause of death of 26,852 people.2
  • Nearly 60 percent of the drug overdose deaths—22,134—involve prescription opiates, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone.3
  • Three out of four drug overdose deaths, 78 percent, in 2010 were unintentional. Another 14 percent involved suicidal intent and the remaining 8 percent were of undetermined intent. 4

In 2011, drug misuse and abuse caused about 2.5 million emergency department visits. Of those, more than 1.4 million visits were related to prescription drugs.5 Heroin use is increasing and has gained more public attention with the deaths from heroin use of two well-known actors in the past year. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire 2014 State of the State address to heroin and opiate drug addiction.

  • The number of people who reported using heroin in the past year almost doubled between 2007 and 2012, from 373,000 to 669,000, according to a federal survey on drug use.6
  • In the same survey, 156,000 people ages 12 or older reported they used heroin for the first time.
  • The number of people with heroin dependence or abuse also doubled from 2002 to 2012, from 214,000 to 467,000.
  • In Vermont, according to Gov. Shumlin, treatment for opiate abuse and addiction has increased 770 percent since 2000. Heroin treatment has increased 250 percent since 2000 and was up 40 percent in just the past year. Deaths from heroin overdoses doubled in 2013 from the year before.
  • Shumlin advocated that Vermont address drug abuse, addiction and overdose as a health crisis, building appropriate and coordinated treatment, criminal justice and prevention strategies.

A number of states are adopting harm-reduction strategies as one way to fight the scourge of drug overdoses. Naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan, is a prescription drug that can be administered by injections or nasal spray to overdose victims to counteract the effects of heroin or opiates and save their lives. Laws in 21 states and the District of Columbia have increased the likelihood that overdose victims receive life-saving naloxone.

  • Harm-reduction laws generally fall into two categories. The first addresses increasing access to the prescription drug naloxone and eliminating civil liability for those administering the drug. The second category of laws, also known as Good Samaritan laws, addresses the fear of criminal repercussions for overdose victims and bystanders.
  • In 2001, New Mexico became the first state to pass a law to make it easier for health practitioners to prescribe naloxone, even to third parties like parents or friends of an addict. The law also protected people who administered the antidote, as well as the prescriber, from civil liability.
  • Fifteen other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws increasing access to naloxone. In addition, Oregon allows third-party prescriptions after training and Ohio has a pilot program underway in Lorain County under a 2013 law.7
  • New Mexico led the way in 2007 with a Good Samaritan provision to encourage bystanders to summon help by reducing or eliminating the criminal justice consequences for the bystanders and the overdose victim.8
  • Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of Good Samaritan law, six states as recently as the 2013 legislative session.9
  • In its survey of bills filed as of Feb. 5, 2014, CSG found at least seven states that are moving to strengthen existing laws and seven additional states looking to adopt new laws regarding use of naloxone.
  • A 2012 CDC review of 48 community-based programs offering opiate overdose prevention services documented 10,171 overdose reversals, from the first program’s inception in 1996 to June 2010. In the 12 months before the survey, the programs reported distributing more than 38,000 vials of naloxone.10


1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Wide-ranging OnLine Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER)." 2012.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "Highlights of the 2011 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) findings on drug-related emergency department visits." The DAWN Report. Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2013.
6 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, "Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings," NSDUH Series H-46, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4795. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013. 
7 The Network for Public Health Law, William Mitchell College of Law, “Legal Interventions to Reduce Overdose Mortality: Naloxone Access and Overdose Good Samaritan Laws,” Nov. 2013.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Community-Based Opioid Overdose Prevention Programs Providing Naloxone — United States, 2010,” MMWR, February 17, 2012. 


States Adopting Harm Reduction Laws to Prevent Overdose Deaths