Everyone’s heart breaks for the victims of opiate overdoses and the families left behind to mourn lost loved ones. But Kristen’s Law – which would make it a felony, punishable by life in prison, to sell drugs that result in an overdose death – will only make opiate addicts more likely to overdose while doing little to stop drug traffickers.
Almost every medical and recovery professional in Rhode Island has come out against the law. This is because the people closest to the opiate epidemic understand the disease’s tragic complexity. The line between drug dealers and drug addicts isn’t as clear-cut as politicians and cable television would have us believe. Most dealers are addicts themselves, and more dealers are living in poverty than in luxury. For fans of “The Wire,” the typical drug dealer has more in common with Bubbles – the junkie hustling to earn enough for his next fix – than scheming criminal masterminds like Stringer Bell. Treating them like murderers will only drive opiate addiction further into the shadows.
Holding drug dealers accountable for unlawful actions is certainly required of the criminal justice system. However, instances where the facts or the law simply do not point to blatant malfeasance should not be forced onto local prosecuting authorities. As Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro observes, when it comes to prosecuting drug dealers for overdose deaths, “It depends on the district attorney. It depends on the evidence. It depends on the law, and whether or not you’ve made the case.”
The hard truth is that increasing the severity of the punishment doesn’t do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs. In fact, a report from Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago found that there is no evidence to show that tougher enforcement efforts do a better job of driving down substance misuse or access to drugs.
Moreover, there is simply no proof that prosecuting drug dealers for overdose deaths is effective at reducing overdose fatalities. In fact, death tolls from drug use continue to climb across the country, even in the states and counties most aggressively prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases. For example, despite 10 full-time police officers investigating 53 potential drug-induced homicide cases in Hamilton County, Ohio, in 2015, the county still recorded 100 more opiate-related overdose deaths in 2016 than in 2015.
For ramifications to actually deter people from committing a crime, three factors must be present – the punishment should be swift, certain and adequately severe. In other words, punishment used to deter crime can only work if lawbreakers are convinced that they will be immediately apprehended and quickly punished. And of the three factors, severity of punishment is the least effective tool for deterrence.
In Rhode Island, current law already makes the sale, delivery or distribution of a controlled substance a felony, with provisions that call for life in prison in cases where the sale of illegal drugs leads to the death of a minor. Expanding those penalties to overdose deaths regardless of age will not deter drug dealers from continuing to sell drugs and will not slow the flow of drugs to users. And while Kristen’s Law does have a good Samaritan exception, the average drug addict isn’t a lawyer or public policy expert. If a dealer sees someone overdosing from drugs they sold, the dealer will run away and leave the person to die instead of calling 911 and giving the dying individual access to life-saving Narcan.
Opiate overdose deaths have actually been on the decline in Rhode Island. This reduction can be attributed in large part to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force. The task force changed the way the state addresses drug use – instead of focusing on punishment, the state now engages programs like the “centers of excellence,” which provide medication-assisted treatment and recovery; allows hospital emergency rooms to connect individuals who have overdosed to peer recovery specialists; and screens individuals who enter Rhode Island prisons for opioid use and offers them treatment.
Rhode Island will never arrest its way out of the opiate crisis. The only way to get this epidemic under control is to understand that drug abuse is first and foremost a mental health issue, where victims need treatment and compassion.
Sen. Hanna Gallo, D-Cranston, is absolutely correct in saying, “We need to send a strong, clear message to drug dealers that people are dying as a result of their actions.” Unfortunately, Kristen’s Law is not the best way to do that.
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