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Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Hurt Rather Than Help Opioid Overdose Crisis

by Dale Chappell

Lawmakers and prosecutors just don’t get it. Instead of treatment and prevention of opioid overdoses, lawmakers and prosecutors are pushing for more convictions under draconian drug-induced homicide laws in response to America’s deadly crisis. They claim it is to “send a strong message” to drug dealers.

In reality, the only “message” being heard, however, is not to call 911, lest you get charged in the death under the drug-induced homicide laws. Rather than targeting the major drug distributors as the laws were intended, prosecutors often charge friends and lovers of the victim, according to Health in Justice, an organization that opposes “criminalization of health and social problems” and tracks punitive drug policies. “Fewer than half of the cases we analyzed involved a traditional buyer/seller relationship,” noted Leo Beletsky, lead investigator at Health in Justice and associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University.

“Drug-induced homicide is couched as a way to respond to the overdose crisis, but prosecutors are not held accountable for proving whether these laws are effective,” said Lindsay LaSalle, senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit. “There is not a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at reducing overdose fatalities.”

On the contrary, research shows that these laws are not only ineffective, but they also exacerbate the very problems they purport to fix. In a 2017 study by LaSalle, more than half of those who witnessed an opioid overdose were reluctant to call 911 for fear of legal consequences. The study found that drug-induced homicide prosecutions undercut Good Samaritan laws, which generally shield those who seek medical help for opioid overdose victims from criminal prosecution.

When Michael Millette sold some heroin to his friend and drug-use partner, he warned him to be careful. “I told him, ‘Listen, this stuff is really good, just do a tiny line, it’s very strong.’” Millette’s friend was found dead of an opioid overdose with a syringe and spoon next to him. Prosecutors pinned the death on Millette for providing his friend with the deadly heroin under a draconian drug-induced homicide law introduced during the crack-cocaine era.

Cases such as Millette’s are exploding nationwide. Drug-induced homicide prosecutions have increased nearly 225 percent in just six years, from 363 in 2011 to 1,178 in 2016, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. These laws have created a chilling effect on the so-called “public health” response to America’s worsening opioid overdose crisis, by deterring drug users and their companions from calling 911 during an overdose. They would rather not seek lifesaving help than be prosecuted under the drug-induced homicide laws.

Compounding this problem is the fact that a small-time drug user selling to support his or her own habit usually has no idea what else is in the heroin. In Millette’s case, the heroin he sold to his friend was laced with illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin. There was no evidence that Millette even knew this. Rather than take his chances at trial, Millette pleaded guilty and received 10 to 30 years in prison.

Locking Millette and others like him up for decades was not the original goal of drug-induced homicide laws, and it certainly won’t do anything to help solve the opioid crisis gripping the country. 



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