Teens Who Share Drugs May Face Conviction, Prison Sentencing

By Paul Gaita 01/11/19

Though laws vary in regard to culpability, 20 states regard drug delivery resulting in death as a crime. 

teens at a party using drugs

A new feature on Psychology Today highlights an alarming possibility for parents and teenagers: Sharing drugs with friends can be considered legal grounds for a charge of dealing that can carry a prison sentence.

The feature references a New York Times article that details hundreds of cases of fatal overdoses in 36 states; many of these involved deaths that led to charges of homicide against friends and relatives, even though the deaths were considered unintentional.  

Psychology Today advised a conversation with parents of teenagers to inform them about the possible legal consequences of sharing drugs.

Though laws vary in regard to culpability, the New York Times feature links to a list from the Drug Policy Alliance of 20 states that regard drug delivery resulting in death as a crime. Other states impose charges of manslaughter, homicide and murder on overdose-related cases.

Regardless of the final charge, cases involving accidental overdose deaths that resulted in prosecution or arrest doubled between 2015 and 2017; in the state of Minnesota, the number quadrupled over a decade.

The Psychology Today and New York Times articles both emphasized the fact that distribution of drugs that results in a death can result in criminal charges and imprisonment.

The Times cited a case of a 21-year-old in Minnesota who allegedly brought a synthetic drug to a party where 11 people overdosed, including a friend who died from cardiac arrest. The individual who brought the drug, and who claimed he was not aware of its illegal status, pled guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to nearly 10 years.

The Minnesota case also highlights the broad definition of distribution or dealing that is employed by several states. Sharing or giving away drugs with no exchange of money can be considered distribution; even borrowing money from another person to purchase drugs which results in an overdose death can bring a prosecution charge. Though defendants may argue that they did not force the situation in which a fatal overdose occurred, prosecutors take the position that the drugs caused a death, regardless of intent.

"Some family has lost an innocent life," said Peter Kilmartin, attorney general of Rhode Island, in the New York Times piece. "That victim no longer has a voice."

The Psychology Today feature that connects the two stories advocates for direct communication about sharing drugs with teenagers. "Open a dialogue with your child about drug sharing and the new legal consequences," wrote the story's author, Sean Grover, LCSW. Involving family members or representatives from a child's school is also suggested.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.