While those who die from drug overdoses are ultimately responsible for their actions, the legal landscape has begun to shift from looking at these tragedies are accidental “deaths by misadventure” or suicides to holding the sellers of these drugs accountable for homicides.
Drug overdoses, now the leading cause of death in the country, claimed over 64,000 Americans in 2016 alone. Although prescription drugs are mostly responsible for these overdoses, in 2016, fentanyl, fentanyl analogs and heroin accounted for 20,000 and 15,000 deaths respectively. If that doesn’t stress the gravity of the current drug epidemic, consider that over the past decade the number of Americans using heroin has increased by 500 percent.
Combating the Problem of Drug Overdoses
Although we have yet to discover a quick way to diminish the situation, it has been explored from many different lenses: public health intervention, education of the public and professionals, and law enforcement to name just a few. The prosecution of these overdose deaths is another way to attempt to combat the problem.
It used to be that prosecutors only charged drug-related deaths in which rival gangs were involved as homicides. However, today’s legal system now looks at whether each overdose death is able to be prosecuted as a homicide against the individuals who distributed the drugs, which were used to overdose. This is not to say that every drug overdose is a homicide. Some are accidental, and some are suicides. It is safe to say that the prosecution of drug-related overdoses as homicides will be difficult to prove. However, the change in attitude towards responsibility is major.
Legal Theories for Drug Homicide
States are prosecuting drug-related deaths as homicides under two different legal theories: (1) felony murder rule; and (2) creation of the specific offense of death resulting from the distribution of controlled substances.
Arizona is among a group of states that list drug offenses as crimes, which are then looked at as murder when a death occurs during an offense. The felony murder statute requires no intent – just proof of the offense and the cause of death are needed.
Taking into consideration the fact that many drug users are dependent upon multiple substances and that a history of substance abuse may have impaired their health beyond what is normal, creating multiple causes of death, it can be tough to prove actual causation, a key element.
It is highly unlikely that the prosecution of drug dealers for homicide will result in the elimination of the current opioid epidemic. However, it may hopefully serve as a deterrent for some.
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