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Our Opinion: Are drug dealers really responsible for fatal overdoses?

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Imposing stiff penalties for drug dealers whose customers suffer overdose deaths might sound like justice, but addiction treatment advocates warn that such laws carry unintended consequences.

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is lobbying against Senate Bill 375, which would create a pair of new criminal offenses for drug pushers. Death by distribution would be a Class C felony resulting in a presumptive sentence of four years, 10 months to six years, one month in prison, while aggravated death by distribution would be a Class B2 felony with a minimum presumptive sentence of more than 10 years.

In an action alert from the coalition, Appalachian harm reduction services coordinator Virgil Hayes writes that the bill could result in “drug users who share with friends, partners who use from the same supply of drugs and people who sell to support a drug habit” facing severe punishment “even when the death is an accident.”

A death by distribution statute could also put lives at risk and undermine the state’s Good Samaritan law, Hayes writes, by making people reluctant to call 911 and report overdoses if they were involved in supplying the victim with drugs.

“Evidence from other states shows that the majority of people prosecuted under these laws are friends and family of the deceased, not drug dealers as the bill claims to target,” Hayes wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, introduced the bill. Co-sponsors include Sens. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, and Warren Jackson, R-Burke. Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, cross-filed the legislation as House Bill 474 with co-sponsors including Rep. Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe.

The effort to hold drug dealers accountable for users’ overdose deaths has picked up steam as the opioid epidemic worsened and the proposed North Carolina crime parallels a federal crime — distribution of heroin resulting in death.

In October 2017, a federal judge imposed a 27-year sentence against Wilson resident Elton Wayne Watson following a conviction on that charge and others. U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon said Watson’s case was among the first successful prosecutions for that crime in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

A jury found Watson guilty of selling heroin to 43-year-old Timothy Alan Barkley, who suffered a fatal overdose in March 2015. Higdon and Wilson police commanders touted the conviction as a bellwether in the fight against heroin and opioids. But there’s another perspective to consider.

Watson’s aunt, Emma Hardeman, told The Wilson Times her nephew was no kingpin. She described him as a low-level dealer who sold heroin to fuel his own drug habit and said police and prosecutors were quick to make him a scapegoat.

“Everybody’s a victim in this,” Hardeman said after the sentencing. “Elton has been on drugs all his life. The sad thing is their family is hurting because they’ve lost their loved one. It appears we’ve lost ours to the court system.”

There are already mechanisms to punish drug dealers for the misery they cause, but federal and state death-by-distribution laws far exceed established standards for civil liability. For good reason, Republicans backing this legislation would oppose efforts to make gun manufacturers liable for mass shootings and murders. What’s the difference, and why the inconsistency?

Generally, makers and sellers can be sued when products are defective or adulterated, not when consumers misuse them. Would selling tainted drugs that cause illness or death, such as heroin spiked with more potent additives like fentanyl, be a better line in the sand?

Overdose deaths are tragedies, and the addicts who succumb to them are rightly called victims. However, death-by-distribution laws seem to undercut the role of personal responsibility. Is the user or the seller ultimately responsible for the user’s actions?

If a doctor writes you a prescription for a necessary medication and you suffer harm after ignoring or misunderstanding the directions, how much of that harm is the physician’s fault? There may be vast legal differences between a respected doctor and a back-alley drug pusher, but heroin’s effects are similar to those of prescription painkillers. It’s not an entirely farfetched comparison.

State lawmakers will have to grapple with these thorny issues and seek a balance between letting drug dealers skate and setting extreme precedents for liability.

The N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition believes outreach and treatment, not just arrest and prosecution, are critical to reversing the opioid overdose crisis. This group deserves a seat at the table, and legislators should consider its cautions carefully.

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