Should drug dealers whose clients overdosed and died be charged with murder? That's what lawmakers in Connecticut, Mississippi, Hawaii and Virginia have recently proposed.
From a logistical point of view, this is a tough question to easily answer but, for whatever its worth, we don’t lock up car dealers when someone dies in a car accident. And gun manufacturers are free from product liability suits when someone is killed with a gun. And we don’t prosecute the CEOs of airlines after a plane crashes. You get the idea.
Lawmakers around the country have been pushing for murder or manslaughter charges for drug dealers after the rise of the opioid epidemic resulted in a countless number of fatal overdoses. Well, maybe we shouldn't say "countless" because in 2017 over 47,000 died from an opioid overdose. That's a heck of a lotta drug overdoses.
And while that might be a disturbingly high number, one has to wonder: what about people who overdose on prescription meds? Hasn't a huge chunk of the opioid crisis stemmed from people's easy access to powerful prescription drugs? Are we going to lock up doctors and pharmacists too?
This policy position is more popular than you might expect.Twenty states currently have "drug-induced homicide" laws that carry similar sentences as murder and manslaughter. Federal law includes a penalty of 20 years to life in prison for providing drugs to someone who suffered from a fatal overdose.Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.
But are these good policies? Are we saving any lives by creating these laws or are we just putting more people in prison? What happens when someone is overdosing in the presence of someone who's aware of the existence of these laws? Will that person be hesitant to seek emergency medical care for their overdosing acquaintance out of fear of spending decades in prison?After years and years of watching the drug war fail miserably, why are we still committed to making it worse?
From 2011 to 2016 the number of people prosecuted for drug-induced homicides increased from 363 to 1,178.That's more than a 300% increase and it correlates with the rise of opioid-related deaths.
Recidivism is the act of returning to prison for the same crime more than once. A Federal prison report from 2010 suggests about 51% of drug addicted criminals return to prison and about three quarters of those returning from prison have a history of substance abuse. Meanwhile more than 70% of prisoners with serious mental illnesses also have a substance use disorder. I'm not saying everyone in prison with a drug problem deserves to be freed, but locking these addicts up in a small confined space with nothing to do but consume more drugs is clearly not helping to solve the opioid crisis. It's very likely contributing to the problem.
So why are we coming up with more reasons to send drug-related criminals to prison? What would this accomplish, exactly? Nothing, really, except maybe resulting in the possibility that the policy will make us feel better and, frankly, we are a lot better off if we don’t try to use the law to assuage our hurt feelings.
Even still, here we are again trying to ramp up the drug war. Has history taught us nothing? It certainly seems that way.
Photo of bad life choice by Getty Images