The Reagan-era war on drugs pioneered it 35 years ago, and now it is back. Increasingly, prosecutors charge people with murder or manslaughter when a friend or loved one dies of an overdose.
Experts seem divided on whether the changes are ethical, effective or do anything but harm, if the goals are ending the opioid epidemic, saving lives or justice.
Charging someone close to the victim
New York has seen its share of these cases. The state saw just under 3,700 overdose deaths in the most recent year of numbers from the Centers for Disease Control (2018). However, our rate of deaths per population put us in the lower half of the 50 states.
More often than ever before, after one of these deaths prosecutors level a homicide charge against someone. Commonly, the accused is the last person who touched the drugs before the person who overdosed. They are often a relative, friend or low-level street dealer.
The local, regional or national supplier of the drugs is rarely charged, perhaps because convictions against someone physically in the room are much easier to get.
As an article in the New Republic points out, a Fox News affiliate in Wisconsin looked into 100 such homicide prosecutions and found that almost 90% were of friends, family or local street dealers.
Many argue the strategy only make things worse
There are countless reasonable concerns about this approach. One is that other addicts who are very much like the victim wind up with homicide convictions. Their chances of getting straight hardly improve with homicide on their record. Meanwhile, the epidemic only deepens as the suppliers of the deadly opioids keep raking in the cash.
It is often easy to save the life of a person overdosing on opioids if treatment comes fast enough.
If the policy was to stop friends and family from calling first responders, it may be hard to think of a more effective method than threatening them with a murder rap.
During a major controversy last year, the Baltimore Sun editorial board said pointed to a case of a man who bought some heroin capsules. His brother died from them, prosecutors charged him with “drug delivery resulting in death” and he himself promptly died of an overdose while out on bail.
By all accounts, the dealer who sold the brother the pills is still at large.