An Indiana law that took effect in July enables the state to put a drug dealer in jail for as much as 40 years if a user dies of an overdose. Indiana is far from alone in seeking harsh punishments for drug dealers in such cases.
At least 19 other states have similar laws, enabling charges such as manslaughter and even murder against dealers in the case of OD deaths. And three more — Connecticut, Hawaii and Virginia — are considering similar “drug-induced homicide” measures.
Beyond state legislation, for more than 30 years, the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 has stipulated prison terms of 20 years to life for dealing drugs that lead to fatal overdoses.
While dealers who knowingly sell drugs laced with fentanyl or other highly toxic substances should be punished for their reckless disregard for human life, some states are taking it too far. The charge of murder, which automatically evokes premeditated intent to kill, would be inappropriate in most cases, unless the state can prove such intent. The legislation that led to Indiana’s new law drew controversy during the 2018 General Assembly. Proponents argued that it would give law enforcement more ammunition in the fight against the opioid plague, that it could take rogue dealers off the street for decades and that it would dissuade dealers from supplying tainted and highly toxic drugs.
Detractors of the bill argued that it would discourage some people from calling 911 when an overdose occurs, that the cost of trying such cases and then incarcerating convicts long term would prove onerous, and that the spirit of the legislation was contrary to new state laws reducing mandatory penalties for use of illegal drugs.
According to a recent article by The Associated Press, the number of news stories about drug-induced homicides in America rose from 363 in 2011 to 1,178 in 2016. In 2017 alone, about 47,600 people in the U.S. died of opioid overdoses.
Locally, fatal overdoses have risen dramatically over the past few years and the culpability of those who supplied the drugs has come under close scrutiny. Madison County had 53 fatal overdoses in 2017, compared to 23 four years earlier, according to data compiled by the Madison County Health Department and the Madison County coroner.
In one local case, Antonia Wright, 62, pleaded guilty in February to reckless homicide. Her sentencing is set for March 22.
Wright’s friend, Vickie Christ, 57, died Aug. 18 from a methamphetamine overdose.
Wright told police she bought meth for Christ, who didn’t have money to make the purchase. The two women then smoked the drug at Wright’s home before Wright fell asleep in a chair. Christ was later found dead in a bedroom.
It’s another cautionary tale in the long and tragic battle with illicit drug use in Madison County and across the state.
Without a doubt, Indiana and other states beset by illicit drug use and fatal overdoses should review and revise laws to seek the best path for punishment, public safety and rehabilitation. There’s too much at stake here to stand pat.
But new laws shouldn’t be enacted without close consideration of fairness to victims, survivors and the accused, or without regard to consequences, whether intended or unintended.
And while drug dealers should be dealt with harshly, the personal responsibility of users should be taken into account, as well.