As the opioid epidemic rages on, lawmakers have become increasingly pressured to pass legislation that will resolve one of America’s most pressing public health crises. As shown by some current laws, however, imprudent legislation on this complex issue can have disastrous effects. One such statute that was recently passed in Rhode Island, known as Kristen’s Law, targets opioid drug dealers by labeling all deaths that result from a controlled substance transaction as homicides. The law was passed in response to the death of a woman named Kristen Coutu, who was, unknowingly, sold pure fentanyl instead of heroin and died within minutes of a lethal dosage. The law creates a new criminal offense called drug-induced homicide, enabling prosecutors to more easily charge a drug dealer with murder if he or she sold a “lethal dose,” classified as an amount resulting in overdose and death. While Rhode Island legislators had good intentions, taking such a punitive approach to the epidemic will have reverberating negative social and political ramifications.
The war on drugs has already demonstrated the consequences of mass incarceration, specifically the disproportionate impact on low-income minority communities. Instead of aiding these communities, Kristen’s Law only seeks to further condemn them. Other states have implemented similar retaliatory legislation, and it has been shown that, more often than not, these laws do more harm than good. In Pennsylvania, a woman named Gwendolyn Prebish had been struggling with mental illness—anxiety, depression, and PTSD—for her entire life, along with an opioid addiction. She is now facing forty years in prison after selling fentanyl to a fellow user (who also was a dealer).
Those who have personally lost a family member to opioid overdose were typically the strongest proponents of the bill. They seek “justice” for their loved ones. Earlier this year, Trump echoed their castigating sentiments, saying in New Hampshire that “if we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time…and that toughness includes the death penalty.” This statement was overwhelmingly met with criticism, and rightly so. Many are concerned with the repercussions it could have on struggling users and the general population. This law has been received with considerable controversy. Protect Families First, a nonprofit that strives to promote community health, keep families together, help troubled youth, and reduce the number of people in the criminal system, has spoken against Kristen’s Law. Annajane Yolken, director of the organization, cites the ambiguity of the term “lethal dose,” and how it varies from person to person based on individual tolerance. With such a fluctuating definition of lethal dosage, how can the law be executed objectively? The harsh consequences of the bill also exacerbate fears within communities during a period that has already been declared a national public health emergency. Although there is a Good Samaritan clause included in Kristen’s Law, opponents, like Steven Brown of the ACLU, worry that people–the dealers, in particular–will be less inclined to report overdoses because of the higher stakes if the user were to die.
The crux of the issue is that the bill does not target those truly responsible for these fatal opioid overdoses. People often oscillate between the roles of dealer and user; the law blames the dealers who sell controlled substances, yet often these “perpetrators” are victims, fellow users who battle with addiction themselves. Lisa Peterson, an expert in substance abuse, says that “this legislation, although well-intentioned, will only lead to more of our family members, friends and loved ones being removed from our lives before they themselves could achieve recovery.” Most of the dealers that Kristen’s Law will incarcerate are just as Peterson describes: family members, friends, and loved ones—not the actual suppliers and drug kingpins who are switching heroin out for fentanyl and who are the root cause of these deaths.
What alternatives do we have in combating the opioid crisis? The key lies in policies that are rehabilitative rather than disciplinary. Needle sharing programs have been proven to lower disease transmission and reduce opioid deaths. However, public opinion towards this harm-reduction program is quite negative, largely due to the public perception and stigma surrounding opioid addicts, which is why some states have been slow to adopt these programs. Another solution is to increase the distribution of naloxone, a medication that can quickly reverse an opioid overdose. Communities can increase general access to naloxone and mitigate the opioid death toll. In addition, many opioid addicts became hooked not of their own volition, but because of powerful painkillers prescribed to them by their doctors. Increasing provider education and awareness can lead to safer opioid prescriptions—given at a lower dosage and for a shorter amount of time. States like Illinois have implemented a multi-pronged plan of attack incorporating many of these elements. Combined, these interventions can finally start to save lives and guide people toward recovery instead of putting them behind bars.