In this Aug. 31, 2017, file photo, a Health Equality Alliance worker talks with a person getting a free kit of Narcan in Pickering Square in Bangor. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

A bill to expand Maine’s “Good Samaritan” law that shields people who help a drug overdose victim is under consideration in the Legislature, although a recent Senate debate illustrated divisions over how far to extend that immunity.

Three years ago, Maine joined the majority of states that protect people from prosecution if they seek medical assistance for someone overdosing from an illegal drug or if they, themselves, are the person who needs help. At the time, Maine was seeing record numbers of drug overdose deaths and the “Good Samaritan” law was aimed at encouraging people to call police or paramedics for assistance during those crucial first minutes. But the number of overdose deaths topped 600 last year, setting another morbid record as the powerful and deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl becomes more commonplace throughout Maine.

“This law has proven to be so ineffective. Why? Because it is so, so limited,” Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, said during a debate in the Maine Senate on Friday.

Maxmin said the current Good Samaritan law only covers five offenses, including possession of drug or drug paraphernalia. And anyone other than the person calling 911 or the person overdosing could be subject to prosecution. So proposed a bill, at the request of the recovery community, that would also shield from arrest or prosecution anyone else at the scene unless they were committing certain other crimes, such as sexual assault or endangering a child.

The reality, Maxmin said, is that many people are calling for help and fleeing the scene because they still fear arrest.

“And while I know some of this is not a good decision to make, it is a decision they are making nonetheless,” she said. “They are caught in an untenable and immoral situation for any Mainer to be in. They are caught between a punishing criminal justice system and saving a life.”

But other senators supported a more limited proposal from the Mills administration that would have only extended immunity to people who were actively “rendering aid” to an overdosing person. That version has the backing of law enforcement agencies. And Sen. Susan Deschambault, a Democrat from Biddeford, was among several senators who referred to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help a stranger lying injured in a ditch while others walked by.

“The whole point of being a good Samaritan is that someone does something or takes some action to help someone else,” Deschambault said. “For this bill it means someone taking action to help the person who has overdosed, not simply standing by.”

The majority of senators ultimately voted to advance the broader immunity proposed by Maxmin. The bill now heads to the House for consideration. But it would require super-majority votes in both chambers to overcome a potential veto from Gov. Janet Mills, who is a former attorney general and prosecutor.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.