Let’s examine punishment for drug dealers who sell heroin to patients who subsequently die.
A new legal strategy is to charge dealers with homicide when one of their customers fatally overdoses and it can be proven the customer bought the fatal drug from the dealer.
In Rhode Island recently a 25-year-old dealer was convicted of selling $40 worth of “Diesel” to to a 29-year-old customer who died 4 hours later. The dealer was sentenced to 20 years in jail. One way to look at this is it sends a message to the dealers that they better think twice before they sell illegal drugs in Rhode Island. They are tough and bad ass on crime there. They do not tolerate drug dealing.
You can read more about it here:
In the story the dealer expresses regret. “The actions that I did that day, I never meant to hurt nobody,” he said. He apologizes both to the mother of the victim and his own mother.
The story mentions that the victim had just been discharged from drug treatment because her insurance would not pay for coverage past 30 days. Having been in treatment, her tolerance was no doubt low and she likely did the same amount of heroin she used to do before going in to treatment. People coming out of treatment are among the highest at risk for fatal overdoses because of their lowered tolerance.
52,000 American died last year and while I do not hold the 25-year-old drug dealer as an innocent participant, to me he bears a lot less responsibility for the death than the heads of the pharmaceutical companies who admittedly lied to the doctors and the public about the addicting properties of the drugs, and the DEA who approved the manufacture of increasing millions of kilograms of the prescription painkillers even when they knew the massive supply of painkillers were flooding the black market and addicting and killing thousands of Americans while fueling an unprecedented heroin epidemic. I know of no drug company executive responsible for the epidemic who has even spent one night in jail. Sure, they were fined millions, but they made billions.
My main fault with the 25-year-old drug dealer was that he sold Fentanyl as heroin, although it is not clear that he knew this himself. How high on the chain was he? Did he buy, cut and package the drug himself or was he given the powder by a higher up and told to sell it and bring back most of the profit to be passed up the line. Of the $40 he received for the drug, how much profit did he make? Certainly not the billions the drug companies made. And clearly the victim was aware of the risks, although as an addict, she was likely powerless to rationally weigh them — something known to the policy makers who created the system that kicked her out of treatment before she was ready.
Will the 20-year sentence slow the overdose death rate in Rhode Island? We will have to wait and see. I think it is less likely to slow it than increasing treatment options would slow the epidemic. If the 25-year-old dealer had decided to work at McDonald’s instead of in the drug trade, I think the twenty-nine year old user would have likely found someone else to sell her what she craved.
Here is an apocryphal story:
An old man sits on a bench in front of the courthouse, and sees the District Attorney. “How goes the war on drugs?” the old man asks. The DA says, “Great, we put twenty dealers away this week. Sent them all to prison.” The old man sees the DA the next week and says, “How goes the great war on drugs?” “Outstanding,” the DA replies. “We put thirty-seven dealers away.” This goes on week after week, the numbers of arrests go higher and higher. Finally, one day the DA answers the old man, “Best week ever. We put away one hundred and seventy-eight drug dealers just today alone.” The old man laughs and says, “Pretty soon, no more prison cells.”