Comments by Colorado’s U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn during his recent interview with The Colorado Sun shed light on how problematic law enforcement tactics can perpetuate the draconian war on drugs at the cost of public health.
By characterizing all overdose deaths as potential homicides, Mr. Dunn posits the misguided approach of further criminalizing drug sellers as a way to reduce overdose deaths.
As shown in Drug Policy Alliance’s comprehensive 2017 report, “An Overdose Death Is Not Murder: Why Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Are Counterproductive and Inhumane,” conflating accidental drug overdose deaths with murder resorts to faulty logic and ultimately wastes resources and facilitates more harm while doing nothing to achieve the urgent and commendable goal of saving lives.
Evidence overwhelmingly shows that more arrests and harsher criminal punishments don’t deter drug use, reduce drug sales, or impact overdose death rates.
On the other hand, the actual and unfortunate deterrent effect is in discouraging people from calling for help in overdose emergencies for fear of possibly being implicated in a homicide investigation.
This undermines existing good Samaritan laws in place in most states, including Colorado, offering protections from arrest and prosecution on drug charges for people who seek emergency assistance in overdose situations. These laws are designed primarily to ensure that overdose witnesses aren’t hesitant to call 911 on behalf of a friend or loved one due to concerns that either they or the overdose victim will get into legal trouble.
The common circumstances of overdose emergencies—where a friend or loved one is in the best position to intervene quickly to help save a life—expose another major flaw of the drug-induced homicide perspective: It hinges on widespread misperceptions about the scenarios where people typically obtain and use drugs, imagining those who furnish drugs to others as intrinsically menacing, depraved or reckless.
In truth, many people who sell drugs also use drugs. Family members, friends or acquaintances, often mutually experiencing substance use disorder, regularly share or otherwise exchange small amounts of drugs among themselves. Drug-induced homicide cases are known to target associates and loved ones of overdose victims, including those who’ve ingested some portion of the very same batch of drugs implicated in an overdose victim’s death and even after the surviving witness desperately sought medical help for the victim.
Treating accidental overdose deaths as homicides only compounds these tragedies and makes it more likely that future deaths will occur in similar circumstances. Our resources are better focused on a range of evidence-based, cost effective harm reduction initiatives grounded in policies that properly acknowledge drug use as a public health issue, not a criminal justice matter. This includes authorizing the establishment of supervised consumption services (also known as supervised use sites) and other policy reforms to decriminalize simple drug use and possession along with low-level sales. Colorado is striving to move forward through existing and pending state law and municipal initiatives—federal officials should support rather than subvert these life-saving efforts.
Amanda Bent is policy manager at the Colorado Drug Policy Alliance in Denver.