Drug-Induced Homicide Laws: Doing More Harm Than Good
By Chelsea Laliberte
Over the past ten years Americans have been engaged in a harrowing but necessary conversation about the opioid crisis that begs the question “how did we get here?” It has caused us to take a long, hard look at our current social set up, which is based on laws. Laws influence how people view the world around them and influences their behavior.
The laws in America make it pretty clear that if you use certain types of substances you are committing a federal crime. This fact alone made me a criminal at 12 years old when I smoked cannabis for the first time in the park near my house. Did I believe I was a criminal? No. I just wanted to interact with the cute guy who smoked cannabis because I had a crush on him. I never thought about how the Mexican drug cartels distributed the drug I received through the gangs illegally, and that the boy I had a crush on was also committing a federal crime. The human trafficking or murders occurring because of the sale of the cannabis never crossed my mind. It did not change my life. In fact, I hated how paranoid marijuana made me feel and I stopped doing it. My point is that my intentions were never to cause harm to myself or to my community.
But, not all of the most addictive or dangerous substances are illegal and they have remained societally acceptable. Case in point: alcohol. Whether you are a college student, an ice fisherman, or the CEO of a tech company, misusing alcohol is a common experience. If you misuse alcohol, get behind the wheel of your car and crash into another vehicle resulting in an injury or death, public safety violations come into play as they should. But, is anyone ever going after the liquor store owner who sold you the alcohol that you misused which lead to the early death of an innocent person? In America, no. Why? Because alcohol is legal. It is and will remain legal. It is also a massive money-making industry that we all reap the rewards of. Who is reaping the rewards of illegal drugs? Certainly not us. Thus, they remain illegal.
We know through science and experience that those of us who use substances – legal or illegal – are human and thus prone to seeking pleasure or relief. The American Society of Addiction Medicine, National Institutes of Health, and American Medical Association promote substance use disorder as an illness that is chronic, progressive and prone to relapse. So here we are in 2017 in the middle of an opioid crisis – prescription opioids are also legal with a prescription – where the number one cause of death for people under the age of 50 is overdose. However, the same legal scenarios that occur with alcohol don’t occur with opioids. In fact, some laws involving opioids and overdose are the harshest in the country. Which brings us to Drug-Induced Homicide.
Drug-Induced Homicide (DIH) laws were enacted decades ago to bring down drug traffickers, who are typically the guys at the top of the chain calling the shots, working in a gang-related capacity or directly for the criminal organization. However, most of the individuals I work with that are convicted of DIH have a substance use disorder and often are dually diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses. They are the guys trying to make money to fill a need, feed a habit, and be connected to the entity where they can access the one thing that will stop their suffering. They are not predators; they have no intent or desire to harm another person. But people suffering from substance use disorders often end up in the one place that makes it more difficult for them to engage in treatment in order to end the cycle of their behavior: prison or jail. Often, these men and women become recidivists.
The word homicide is defined as “the deliberate and unlawful killing of one person by another; murder.” In Illinois law, the individual who commits Drug-Induced Homicide is said to be “unlawfully delivering a controlled substance to another, and any person’s death is caused by the injection, inhalation, absorption, or ingestion of any amount of that controlled substance.” Since I have yet to meet one person who has been convicted of DIH that intentionally wanted to kill the person they were using with, this law will continue to remain flawed and misguided, and void of evidence.
To be blunt, DIH laws are draconian and pointless, and ultimately do more harm than good. We have not a speck of data to prove that DIH is effective at curbing drug sales, use, or overdose deaths. DIH cases are often difficult to prove, expensive to pursue and maintain, and perpetuate stigma and hate. This law oversimplifies situations and circumstances surrounding overdose, including the people involved, as cut and dry issues – but these issues are anything but cut and dry. These are complex sociological, health issues that cannot be solved through criminalization.
Many prosecutors believe that the threat of DIH sends a message to drug dealers that will influence them to stop their behaviors. But, those individuals are also receiving an opposing message with Good Samaritan Laws that were developed to encourage people to call 911 in the event of an overdose in exchange for immunity from prosecution. “Good Sam” laws have cropped up in nearly every state and are touted by governments as necessary to combatting the opioid epidemic. If it seems contradictory, it is. In fact, recently The Pew Charitable Trusts wrote a letter to President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis revealing data from their analysis which concluded that “higher rates of drug imprisonment do not translate into lower rates of drug use, fewer drug arrests, or fewer overdose deaths.”
In 2016 DIH was applied 38 times in Illinois and according to the Drug Policy Alliance, in Illinois the majority of drug-induced homicide cases there was an opportunity to save the overdose victim but the defendants chose inaction because of fear of prosecution.” So if the majority of DIH cases are being prosecuted among people who are dealing to support their addiction and not among people who are gang leaders or running crime organizations, hasn’t this law been overused and misused repeatedly creating unnecessary human rights violations? Is there nothing else we can possibly do to help people aside from locking them up for 15-30 years, which costs taxpayers millions annually? And furthermore, if our goal is to save lives, why are we trying to scare drug users away from utilizing immunity laws? It doesn’t make any sense.
When my brother died, we had the opportunity to pursue DIH for the young man who sold him the drugs that he fatally ingested. But, what would that have done? Brought him back? No. This is not a game where one person in the transaction is automatically innocent. Alex was certainly not innocent and looking back knowing what I know now, it would be hypocritical for my family to have pursued DIH. Both young men – my brother and the dealer (who was also suffering from SUD) – had the same chance ending up dead.
While I miss Alex dearly, I don’t believe it would have made me feel better to see someone suffering from the same illness go down. What does heal me is fighting for change just like we aim to do at Live4Lali. It is my hope that one day people will feel inclined to ask for help and feel less ashamed, but I don’t think that will happen until a system exists that doesn’t resort to punitive measures like DIH.
DIH is among the worst policies promoted to perpetuate the misguided drug war. The drug war and the punitive policies enacted to fight it have not worked well for Americans, has cost us too much money and far too many lives. It is time to treat drug use and abuse in this country as a health issue, one which focuses on harm reduction and not putting sick people behind bars.
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This post was written by live4lali