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Colorado trial attorneys

After overdoses, should drug dealers be charged with homicide?

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP April 2, 2019

Alexandria S. is not what you think of as a drug dealer. A suburban mother of three, she became addicted to her prescription Percocet while being treated for back pain. When she couldn’t get off Percocet, she turned to heroin, which is chemically similar. Across the street, her neighbor was also suffering from an opioid addiction.

One day, that neighbor gave her $10 and asked her to pick him up some heroin. She didn’t ordinarily take any part in selling or distributing the drug, but on that occasion, she did — as a favor.

She never meant to harm anyone. She didn’t mean to expose her neighbor to any risk she wasn’t taking herself. But the heroin turned out to be laced with Fentanyl, which can be deadly. He overdosed and died.

Now, Alexandra is in jail awaiting trial on charges of third-degree murder. Pennsylvania, where she lives, has a drug-induced homicide law on the books which allows prosecutors to file murder charges when an illegally delivered drug results in death. Colorado has a similar law on the books.

According to the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, 20 states have drug-induced homicide laws, and prosecutors are using them in response to the opioid epidemic. In Pennsylvania, the number of people charged with drug-induced homicide jumped from 15 to 205 between 2013 and 2017. Across the nation, news reports of drug-induced homicide cases have tripled nationwide.

Most of these laws were passed in the 1980s and meant to target actual dealers or major distributers of illegal drugs. Now, the Drug Policy Alliance says, prosecutors are often charging people who merely shared their own drugs with the person who died. Are they culpable for murder if a twist of fate could have led to their own deaths?

In some cases, the person charged with murder even tried to save the overdosing person by using Narcan or calling 911. But good Samaritan laws protecting people who try to intervene in overdoses don’t necessarily apply to the person who supplied the drugs.

It may be that prosecutors are desperate to feel responsive to the opioid epidemic, but there is little evidence that incarceration of drug dealers has any deterrent effect on addicts. What does seem to help is quality detox and rehabilitation.

Do you think that people who supply drugs — under any circumstance — should be held criminally responsible if the person they supplied ends up overdosing? Should it matter if the supplier was a fellow addict? Should the circumstances of the overdose matter? Will sending one addict to prison for drug-induced homicide deter another addict from getting their fix?