Medical Amnesty

Medical amnesty policies are designed to protect the health and lives of students who over-consume alcohol to the point of needing medical help by assuring them that they will not be subject to disciplinary actions for obtaining that help. Such policies typically provide amnesty only if they subsequently successfully complete an intervention or alcohol education program.

To be effective, such policies must be clear, unambiguous and widely understood by students.

Some critics have suggested that such a harm reduction policy encourages abusive drinking. But harm reduction is widely accepted in our society. Few people would argue that requiring seat belts leads people to drive faster or that smoke detectors lead people to smoke in bed. Not punishing those who seek help for a medical emergency but requiring them to undergo intervention or alcohol education does not encourage them to endanger their lives again.

Medical amnesty is often extended to anyone who seeks help for a student who needs medical assistance. Such policies are often referred to as "good samaritan" policies. However, many institutions make no such distinction.

Organizational medical amnesty protects from institutional action an organization that sponsors an event at which medical attention is sought. This level of amnesty provides the largest level of protection and encouragement to seek medical help when needed. However, it is the most controversial amnesty policy and some institutions that provide medical amnesty to individuals do not provide it to organizations.

A medical amnesty program does not protect against prosecution under from civil authorities.

Cornell University explains the rationale behind its alcohol amnesty program:

It is imperative that someone call for medical assistance when an individual experiences severe intoxication or a serious injury after consuming alcohol. People may be reluctant to seek help in such alcohol-related emergencies because of potential judicial consequences for themselves, the person in need of assistance, or the organization hosting the event where the situation occurs. Since these emergencies are potentially life threatening, Cornell seeks to reduce barriers to seeking assistance. (emphasis in original)

Cornell continues that its medical amnesty program "represents the University's commitment to increasing the likelihood that community members will call for medical assistance when faced with an alcohol-related emergency" and that it "also promotes education for individuals who receive emergency medical attention related to their own use of alcohol in order to reduce the likelihood of future occurrences."1 (emphases in original)

Following the implementation of its widely applied (individual, "good samaritan" and organization) alcohol amnesty program, Cornell University experienced an increase in both calls to emergency medical services as well as emergency room visits for alcohol intoxication without any increase in the amount of drinking on campus.

Colleges with zero tolerance policies that lack medical amnesty policies may be putting the safety of their students at risk and might well find themselves sued and held legally liable for not having sensible or reasonable policies to protect their students.

Hundreds of colleges and universities have adopted medical amnesty policies because of the high value they place on protecting their students from harm or death.

Another important way to reduce alcohol emergencies is to help them avoid getting into such difficulties in the first place. Colleges need to make certain that students understand that the alcohol content of a standard drink of beer, dinner wine, or distilled spirits (either straight or in a mixed drink) are equivalent and that they are all the same to a breathalyzer.

Standard drinks are:

Understanding alcohol equivalence prevents students from being fooled into thinking that "just having a few beers" is less intoxicating than having a few glasses of dinner wine or a few shots of whiskey or Martinis. Knowing about standard drinks and alcohol equivalence also helps students understand that there is no drink of moderation, only behaviors of moderation.



  • Robert J. Chapman. Medical Amnesty, The Network Addressing Collegiate Alcohol and other Drug Issues, n.d.
  • Deborah K. Lewis and Timothy C. Marchell. Safety first: a medical amnesty approach to alcohol poisoning at a U.S. university, International Journal of Drug Policy, 2006, 17(4), 329-338.
  • Medial Amnesty, Catalyst, 2007, 9(2), 6-7.
  • 1. Medical Amnesty. Cornell University.

Resources and Readings on Medical Amnesty:

  • Cornell University. Medical Amnesty.
  • Editorial. Medical amnesty bill should not pass. Central Michigan Life, November 2, 2009. (Opposes medical amnesty, arguing that "Minors should not be drinking in any instance. They know it is illegal and should face all consequences that come with it.")
  • The Gordie Foundation. Medical Amnesty and Good Samaritan Policies.
  • Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention. Medical Amnesty and Good Samaritan Policies. I
  • Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention. Under the influence: dealing effectively with a drunken student. (medical amnesty) The Catalyst, 1996, 2(1), 3.
  • Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention. Medial amnesty -effective or not?. The Catalyst, 2007, 9(2), 6-7.
  • Hoover, Eric. More colleges offer "amnesty" for drinking violations. Chronicle of Higher Education, 2007, 54(17), p. A1.
  • Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free. Medical Amnesty - A Growing Controversy?
    (Suggests that medical amnesty policies may send "mixed messages" about underage alcohol use on college campuses.)
  • Lewis, D.K., and Marchell, T.C. Safety first: a medical amnesty approach to alcohol poisoning at a U.S. university, International Journal of Drug Policy, 2006, 17(4), 329-338.
  • Meilman, P. W. College health services should promote Good
    Samaritan rules as part of university alcohol policies. Journal of Amer-
    ican College Health, 1992, 40, 299–301.
  • Oster-Aaland, Laura, and Eighmy, Myron A. Medical amnesty: research is needed. NASPA Journal, 2008, 44(4), 715-727.
  • Sisson, Chelsea. Decoding the medical amnesty policy. The Virginia Informer, November 17, 2009.
  • Zhou, Momo. Can medical amnesty bring sense to undergraduate drinking debate? ABC News, July 17, 2009.
  • Sample Medical Amnesty Policy: University of Pennsylvania:

    In cases of intoxication and/or alcohol poisoning, the primary concern is the health and safety of the individual(s) involved. Individuals are strongly encouraged to call for medical assistance (511 on campus, 911 off campus) for themselves or for a friend/acquaintance who is dangerously intoxicated. (Emphasis in original)

    No student seeking medical treatment for an alcohol or other drug-related overdose will be subject to University discipline for the sole violation of using or possessing alcohol or drugs. This policy shall extend to another student seeking help for the intoxicated student.

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