Do Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Punish Dealers or Kill Addicts?

By Zachary Siegel 01/19/16

While prosecutors talk about "dealing death," low level sellers are afraid to call 911 when a friend overdoses.

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Do Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Deter Users and Sellers?
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Heroin needs no marketing. It’s a perfect product that virtually sells itself. Wherever there is heroin it will be bought, no sales pitch necessary. Yet a deadly batch of heroin flowing through Western Massachusetts is being sardonically marketed as “Hollywood”—so pure it has users falling out in a flash. 

Like any brilliant marketing scheme, Hollywood heroin brings to mind an unshakable image: blinding bright bulbs followed by bodies falling toward the concrete embedded, brass stars.  

The Hollywood batch is responsible for several fatal overdoses since December 30. It’s wrecked towns, broken apart families, and has kept police and first responders on their toes, waiting for the next call. But justice so far has been swift. On Jan. 3, in Springfield, Mass., some 9,000 bags and $20,000 in cash were seized during drug raids. 

Detectives intercepted drug deliveries in Springfield and arrested dealers from nearby Chicopee, North Adams, and Holyoke. Those caught were charged with possession with the intent to distribute a class A substance. But will more charges soon follow? What’s being hotly debated is whether or not the “Strict Liability for Drug-Induced Death” will be invoked, and the question of whether it’s the just thing to do remains unclear. 

The law was first enacted in 1987 during the “tough on crime” years of the crack epidemic. And it’s been more or less forgotten until young people all over America were being found dead in their childhood bedrooms and bathrooms. The draconian statute allows prosecutors to pursue homicide charges against those who sell or manufacture controlled substances that directly caused a death. 

The Prosecutor's Perspective 

New Jersey is one state among several that aggressively pursues this type of homicide charge. Ever since 2014, when a New Jersey town saw eight overdoses in one week, homicide detectives have been sent to every overdose scene. “If you’re going to be a dealer, and that heroin is going to kill somebody, we’re going to take that death, that overdose… and treat it as a homicide,” said Prosecutor Joseph Coronato of Ocean County New Jersey, during an interview with CNN. 

Likewise Tim Alben, retired Col. of the Massachusetts State Police, recently tweeted that the Hollywood heroin dealers were “dealing death!” He also once tweeted, “Charging heroin dealers with homicide/manslaughter should become part of any strategy to attack this problem.” Law enforcement and prosecutors emphatically think pursuing overdoses as cases of drug-induced homicide (DIH) is the proper and logical course of action to necessarily reduce overdose deaths. In a sense, it’s their deterrent strategy, so dealers get out of the business.  

Police Chief Leonard Campanello of Gloucester, Mass., who was recently catapulted into celebrity for his Angel Program, which offers heroin users treatment instead of handcuffs, told The Fix, “I am unequivocally in favor of homicide charges for heroin dealers who sell drugs to people who later overdose and die.”

He added, “I also strongly feel that, in the same sense, the pharmaceutical industry must be held equally responsible." One can’t say Campanello isn’t bold, but some would say his stance is like going after Smith & Wesson for distributing guns that were later used in mass shootings. Dangerous and deadly products are sold everyday in the United States, and wherever the DIH statute is cited, drugs are put into a special category of dangerous. 

In a heroin overdose that results in a death, there is a long, causal chain of events that’s difficult to untangle. From the moment the powder was put in the bag to the time it made its way through the blood-brain barrier, somewhere in this string of moments, prosecutors argue, and often prove, a homicide took place. 

The Activist’s Perspective 

Denise Cullen is a drug policy activist who, along with her husband, also runs Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP) and Broken No More (BNM). These groups are in place to help families grieve after the accidental overdose of a loved one. Sadly, their group is growing as more and more young people succumb. 

After Cullen’s son, Jeffrey, died of an accidental overdose in 2008, circumstances have forced her to think long and hard about prosecuting those who sell potentially deadly drugs. It remains a point of contention within the grieving community. Some families want justice, resulting in a homicide charge, others are tired of the blame game and want peace. 

The Fix reached out to Cullen and asked what she would say, as an affected parent, to someone like Alben, who is loudly in favor of prosecuting the sellers. These DIH laws won’t make things better, she said. “It won’t bring our children back. It won’t make other children safer. What it will do is to continue to demonize and stigmatize those who use and sell drugs.”  

Cullen stands firmly against treating accidental overdose as homicide, as the law usually targets low-level drug sellers, often the victim’s friends. “They target those who suffer from addiction,” she said. “These are not bad people. They are our neighbor’s child.” Certainly, in light of a “softer” War on Drugs, most would agree drug users need help over punishment.  

Kathie Kane-Willis is the executive director at the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University in Chicago. She, too, sees major flaws with treating heroin overdoses as crime scenes, and has fought against DIH laws at a policy level. "These are bad laws and applying them to a public health crisis is the wrong way to stop deaths,” she told The Fix.  

“If our goal is to save lives,” Kane-Willis argues, “then these laws are counter-productive. The majority of people charged under drug-induced homicide laws are drug dependent folks who were using with a friend or loved one.” 

Her view, similar to Cullen’s, is that a potential murder charge scares drug dependent people out of calling 911 in the case of an overdose. This fear may be a large contributor to the grotesque number of deaths from heroin overdose the country is seeing. The highest number of heroin overdoses ever reported was in 2014. Clearly, whatever law enforcement is doing has not resulted in any reduction in mortality. 

The Halliday Case 

Angie Halliday is a former heroin user who dialed 911 after finding her boyfriend dead from an overdose. In 2011, when Angie was 27, Thomas D. Gibbons, prosecutor of Madison County, Ill., near St. Louis, charged her with DIH. In an attempt to incite fear and curb the obscene death rates seen in his county, Gibbons made a public example out of Halliday. 

His message to drug users was loud and clear. "You are part of a drug-distribution network the moment you give another person the drug, just like the dealer," he said during a press conference for her case. He continued, "You're no different or better. Why would you hand a friend something you know can kill them?"

Gibbons did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication. But one can speculate from his stringent message that his understanding of addiction is, at best, elementary. The intense need a drug user feels trumps any abstract laws set in place to deter them. 

Dr. Sam Snodgrass is a former opiate user who served a three-year NIDA post-doc in the Pharmacology and Toxicology Dept. at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He is also on Broken No More’s advisory board, and is a staunch advocate for people like Halliday, who are targeted by militant prosecutors. 

“The prosecutors come off as the ‘good guys’ working for justice,” Snodgrass told The Fix during an interview. “[They] get the ‘dealers’ off the streets so they can't ‘murder’ anyone else. But who are they arresting? Who are they putting in prison for 20 years? Us,” he said. “The people who sell drugs one day and buy them the next. Those of us that do what we have to, to survive. I think we're called ‘low-level drug dealers.’”

In an interview with The Fix, Halliday said she once wrote a letter to Gibbons, whom she has never met in person. The short letter reads to wit: A man like you is able to follow the law absolutely, and yet still be the most despicable criminal of all. Sincerely, Angie Halliday.

“I truly believe Gibbons has caused more deaths with his methods, including how he went after me,” she said during an interview. “I've lost a lot of friends to this plague, and I know they weren't alone when they fell out. Their friends got scared and ran, because they were afraid of his method.”

That method is merciless persecution, which in some states can result in up to 30 years of prison. Halliday ended up pleading guilty to lesser charges. She received four years in the Department of Corrections and four years of probation, which she is still serving. To this day, she cannot get a job because no one will hire a felon. 

Back to Hollywood

Though these details have yet to be released, it is unlikely the Hollywood dealers, caught with thousands of bags and bricks of money, were selling to feed their habits. There is then an obvious grey area that prosecutors like Gibbons and Alben miss: is the suburban user selling here and there to feed his or her habit really the same as someone profiting lavishly? Any reasonable person can see the difference. 

The Fix asked Chief Campanello his take on the grey area. “There should be a distinction between people who sell drugs for their own addictions and those who profit off of drug trafficking and human suffering,” he said sternly. “The law should not be a blanket, going after everyone. There are mitigating factors.” 

Yet people like Angie Halliday too often bear the brunt of the penal colony. “I’ve never made a dollar off of heroin, I’ve only had losses,” she said.

Zachary Siegel has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2013.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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