The US overdose crisis continues to worsen and is disproportionately harming Black and Hispanic/Latino people. Although the “War on Drugs” continues to shape drug policy—at the disproportionate expense of Black and Hispanic/Latino people—states have taken some steps to reduce War on Drugs–related harms and adopt a public health–centered approach. However, the rhetoric regarding these changes has, in many cases, outstripped reality.
Using overdose Good Samaritan Laws (GSLs) as a case study, we argue that public health–oriented policy changes made in some states are undercut by the broader enduring environment of a structurally racist drug criminalization agenda that continues to permeate and constrict most attempts at change.
Drawing from our collective experiences in public health research and practice, we describe 3 key barriers to GSL effectiveness: the narrow parameters within which they apply, the fact that they are subject to police discretion, and the passage of competing laws that further criminalize people who use illicit drugs. All reveal a persisting climate of drug criminalization that may reduce policy effectiveness and explain why current reforms may be destined for failure and further disadvantage Black and Hispanic/Latino people who use drugs.