“Enjoy looking over your shoulder constantly wondering if today’s the day we come for you. Enjoy trying to sleep tonight wondering if tonight’s the night our SWAT team blows your front door off the hinges. We are coming for you.”
Those are the words of Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell. Intimidating masked deputies stand behind him with crossed arms and puffed chests. In the video that recently went viral, there is no second guessing what will happen if you are caught selling heroin in Lake County.
“If our agents can show the nexus between you, the pusher of poison and the person that overdoses and dies, we will charge you with murder.”
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In the midst of a nationwide heroin epidemic, this kind of reaction is common. Pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and street-level dealers are simultaneously under the microscope. The infamous fentanyl, disguised as heroin, has a growing body count as overdose deaths skyrocket in America. The chaos has repurposed and renewed public interest in laws that place the liability for lethal overdoses on the dealer. Known as dealer liability laws, they treat drug dealing as third-degree murder or manslaughter.
No doubt, many loved ones are frustrated by heroin’s grip on their friends and family. These drug-induced homicide laws provide a satisfying scapegoat. When someone overdoses, one of the first questions everyone asks is “Where did they get it?” This is a fair and reasonable question to ask. Heroin is against the law, and people that sell heroin should be in jail. Most people would agree, so it makes sense for law enforcement to take the next step. Charge the pusher not only with the distribution of narcotics but also murder for the death that they caused. It feels like justice, and justice feels good.
However, many are starting to question the core concept of dealer liability laws. Do harsher consequences for dealers discourage them from selling drugs in the first place? This type of legislation has its roots in the War on Drugs in the 1980’s, which was arguably the biggest disaster for preventing substance abuse since prohibition.
So, the big question is, do drug-induced homicide laws work to stop individuals from dealing drugs?
Critics of the War on Drugs argue that these laws are not only ineffective at reducing drug-related deaths but also end up causing harm to substance abuse sufferers instead of deterring individuals from dealing drugs and potentially helping them into rehab. Anyone who has experienced an opiate addiction will testify that they often do things they are not proud of and would not normally do to get a fix.
While this kind of legislation is designed to deter kingpins and high-quantity dealers who sell drugs specifically to profit, it usually misses the mark. Many of those hit with murder charges that stem from an overdose aren’t actually “drug dealers”, but instead are friends of the deceased that are addicted themselves and used the drugs with the victim.
Now, am I saying that the sale and distribution of illegal narcotics (especially ones with high addictive properties) is something that should be swept under the rug? No of course not. However, if history has taught us anything it is that punishment doesn’t deter people participating in illegal activities.
This thinking could end up doing more harm than good.
The laws that allow for prosecution of dealers end up inadvertently targeting those who need help themselves.
If the failed anti-drug measures of the eighties taught us anything, it was a valuable lesson in economics. When the police throw a dealer in jail, there is always another one waiting to take his or her place. Reducing the drug supply does not reduce demand. Instead, supply will rise to meet demand, starting the cycle over again. Aggressive prosecution of the dealer perpetuates this cycle and wastes valuable resources that could go towards treatment and prevention.
But this doesn’t mean the public is powerless in the face of this epidemic or addiction as a whole.
Anti-drug movements have traditionally combined criminal justice measures with education, community services, and prevention strategies. In an epidemic situation, it’s very easy to play into the “book ‘em” mentality. But as far as saving lives goes, prevention, harm reduction, and education strategies provide sustainable results.
Fortunately, needle exchanges and supervised injection sites aren’t the only forms of harm reduction. In states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maine, police departments play an active role in harm reduction measures. Angel Initiatives allow heroin and opiate users to turn in their drugs and paraphernalia without fear of being charged with a crime. The departments then assign the struggling individual to an “angel” who will help them find a treatment facility.
The good news is awareness of the opiate problem is growing, and drug treatment options are consistently expanding. Community resources are available to those who need them, and that’s a good thing. However, these communities need more funding and legislation to get those individuals who struggle off the streets. Addicts need treatment facilities that provide them with real solutions to their destructive lifestyle. Hopefully, the shift in attitude about addiction continues, allowing those who need help to overcome the stigma and reach out.