Death by distribution bill won’t save lives

On May 6th the North Carolina House of Representatives passed House Bill 474, dubbed Death by Distribution, to address the threat of drug overdose deaths in North Carolina. H474 would allow prosecutors to charge a person with second-degree murder if he or she delivers drugs to a person who later dies from ingesting those drugs.

The bill sponsors have noble goals. They want to stop overdose deaths. They want to hold drug dealers accountable for selling potentially fatal substances. And they want justice for families who have lost a loved one to a tragic, preventable death.

Unfortunately, H474 provides no solution. In fact, there is ample evidence that H474 may run counter to its stated goals.

A common argument in favor of Death by Distribution (also called drug induced-homicide law) is that the threat of a second-degree murder charge will deter people from selling drugs, which will therefore prevent overdose deaths. But this claim is refuted by evidence from other states that already have laws similar to H474.

The two states that have most aggressively pursued drug-induced homicide charges in recent years are Ohio and Pennsylvania, who alone account for nearly a third of the national total. But despite having imprisoned hundreds of people under these laws over many years, these states rank second and third in the nation for highest overdose death rates. The top slot for overdose deaths belongs to West Virginia—where the penalty for being convicted of drug-induced homicide is life in prison.

Evidence from other states also indicates that H474 is also unlikely to meet its second goal—holding dealers accountable for drug-related deaths. In fact, the majority of people charged under Death by Distribution laws in the U.S. are friends and family members of the overdose victim, not high-level drug dealers.

This information isn’t surprising given the reality of what drug use and sale actually looks like. High-level dealers deliver in bulk; they aren’t likely to sell small amounts to an overdose victim, so they aren’t likely to be charged under Death by Distribution laws. People who struggle with drug addiction typically share, trade or sell small amounts of drugs with each other. So while proponents of H474 may claim that the bill will target drug dealers, the evidence indicates that it will likely ensnare people who would benefit more from addiction treatment than from prison.

Some people might say, “Fine. So these laws don’t really lock up traffickers. But we have to do something. I don’t care if the drugs came from a friend or family member. There has to be consequences.”

It is tempting to think this way. This logic fueled harsh state and federal laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s that that substantially lengthened prison terms for drug offenders. The hope was that severe consequences would cause drug use and sale to decline. Instead, despite massive spending on imprisonment and enforcement, drug use has increased over the past four decades in North Carolina and across the country.

The final goal of H474 is to provide justice and closure for families who have lost a loved one to a drug overdose. The loss of a loved one is deeply painful and it is understandable to want assurance that someone is being held accountable. Many members the organization I represent, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, are parents who have lost a child to a drug-related overdose. In speaking with them, almost all have admitted that in the immediate aftermath of their children’s deaths, they wanted someone to pay. But after months or years processing their grief, they have concluded that two families losing a child—one to death and one to prison—is not the answer. Many of these parents are now actively working to oppose H474.

We have all been impacted by the drug overdose epidemic. We all desperately want the deaths to stop. But the discussion should focus on solutions that are actually proven to lower overdose deaths—such as diversion programs, substance use and medication assisted treatment, naloxone availability, alternative sentencing and prevention programs—not on laws that sound attractive, but have ample evidence to show that they won’t work, and might even cause more harm.

Governor Cooper should veto H474.

Tessie Castillo is a consultant for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, a statewide nonprofit that works with families and individuals impacted by drugs and drug policy.