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Your Voice: Why drug-induced homicide laws are bad

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On Thursday, the Drug Policy Alliance is released a major new report, An Overdose Death Is Not Murder: Why Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Are Counterproductive and Inhumane.

This first-of-its-kind publication examines one strategy that the law enforcement community and some elected officials are embracing in response to the overdose crisis -- drug-induced homicide -- which the evidence suggests is intensifying, rather than helping, the problem.

The Drug Policy Alliance is also releasing two powerful video profiles of people who are currently serving drug-induced homicide sentences.

Drug-induced homicide refers to the crime of selling or sharing drugs that result in a death. Twenty states have specific drug-induced homicide laws, while many others charge the crime under generic murder or manslaughter laws. Though relatively unused since they were introduced in the 1980s, prosecutors are reinvigorating the laws with a rash of drug-induced homicide prosecutions in response to rapidly increasing rates of opioid overdose deaths. While intended to reach large-scale "traffickers," most prosecutions are against family, friends, or low-level sellers.

While the total number of drug-induced homicide prosecutions is unknown, new data collected by the Drug Policy Alliance shows that news articles about individuals charged with or prosecuted for drug-induced homicide have recently increased over 300 percent, from 363 in 2011 to 1,178 in 2016. Since 2011, Midwestern states Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota have been the most aggressive in prosecuting drug-induced homicides, with northeastern states Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York and southern states Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee rapidly expanding their use of these laws.

"This is a wasteful, punitive policy that compounds the tragedy of an overdose by locking up even more people in the name of the failing war on drugs," said Lindsay LaSalle, senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance and author of the report. "By placing the blame for an overdose death on the single person who supplied the drugs, all the structural factors that lead to addiction and overdose are ignored, as are the solutions that could actually make a difference. While there's no evidence in support of the effectiveness of drug-induced homicide laws, the good news is that there are proven health and harm reduction interventions that can save lives."

Though prosecutors rely on the oft-cited, but totally unproven, deterrence rationale in support of their charging practices, there is no evidence that enforcement of drug-induced homicide reduces drug use or sales, or deadly overdoses. Rather, the only behavior that is actually deterred is the seeking of life-saving medical assistance for fear of prosecution. This is especially true because police and prosecutors are widely abusing their discretion in investigating and prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases, with the vast majority being sought against those best in a position to call for help -- family, friends, acquaintances, and low-level sellers who are often supplying drugs to support their own drug dependence.

Increased criminalization of people who use and sell drugs only exacerbates the very problem prosecutors are supposedly trying to address. It increases stigma, drives people away from needed care, and will likely result in the same racial disparities now synonymous with other drug war tactics.

"This is no time to ratchet up enforcement responses to addiction and overdose - we can't afford to repeat the mistakes of the past," added LaSalle. "Overdose deaths are skyrocketing and it could be your loved one who dies from a preventable drug overdose, simply because someone was too scared to call 911."

- The Drug Policy Alliance

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