Jennifer Marie Johnson is currently serving six years in a Minnesota prison for giving her husband methadone that led to a fatal overdose. Erik Scott Brown got 23 years in federal prison after his friend overdosed on one-tenth of a gram of heroin. Samantha Molkenthen, a 21-year-old from Wisconsin, got 15 years after her friend died while they shared heroin. Molkenthen was pregnant when she was arrested and had to give up her child for adoption.
Those are just three cases mentioned in a report released Tuesday (viewable in full below) that details the rise of drug-induced homicide laws crafted in response to America’s opioid epidemic. Overdoses killed roughly 64,000 people across the U.S. last year, and while the problem has led to calls for a more public health–oriented approach to the problem — what the New York Times once dubbed a “gentler drug war” — it’s clear that police and prosecutors are still using draconian drug laws to send low-level users and dealers to prison for decades.
The report, published by the Drug Policy Alliance, focuses on cases where people were charged with murder, manslaughter, or something similar for supplying drugs that led to a fatal overdose. While reliable data on drug-induced homicide cases is hard to come by, the report found that media mentions of the prosecutions increased by more than 300 percent over the last six years, climbing from 363 reports in 2011 to 1,178 in 2016.
The prosecutions are supposed to scare dealers into quitting the business, but the report notes that this strategy is failing miserably. For example, investigators in Hamilton County, Ohio, pursued 53 potential drug-induced homicide cases in 2015, but overdoses continued to skyrocket in 2016, with the county recording 100 more overdoses than the year before.
“There is not a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at reducing overdose fatalities,” the report states. “In fact, death tolls continue to climb across the country, even in the states and counties most aggressively prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases.”
READ: A nation in recovery
Some other key stats from the report:
More states are treating overdoses like murders
- 20 states — Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — have drug-induced homicide laws on the books. Prosecutors in other states still charge people connected to overdoses with felony-murder, manslaughter, and other offenses.
- In 2017, lawmakers in at least 13 states — Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia — proposed creating new drug-induced homicide offenses or strengthening existing laws.
States in the midwest and deep south are the worst offenders
- Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota were responsible for half of drug-induced homicide cases identified in the report, with Wisconsin alone accounting for 20 percent.
- Between 2011 and 2016, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Louisiana each saw more than 40 percent increases in drug-induced homicide prosecutions.
Major drug dealers aren’t facing homicide charges for overdoses
- Out of 32 drug-induced homicides identified in New Jersey, 25 involved “prosecution of friends of the decedent who did not sell drugs in any significant manner.”
- An analysis of 100 most drug-induced homicide cases in Wisconsin found that nearly 90 percent of those charged “were friends or relatives of the person who died, or the lowest people in the drug supply chain.”
Drug-induced homicide laws might be causing more fatal overdoses
- The report notes that while 40 states and Washington, D.C., have passed so-called “Good Samaritan” laws, which offer some type of immunity to people who call 911 to report an overdose, “this public health approach to problematic drug use, however, is rendered useless by enforcement of drug-induced homicide laws.”
- “The vast majority of charges are sought against those in the best positions to seek medical assistance for overdose victims — family, friends, acquaintances, and people who sell small amounts of drugs, often to support their own drug dependence,” the report states. “Despite police and prosecutor promises to go after upper-echelon drug manufacturers and distributors, that rarely happens.”
It looks like these drugs laws are racist, too
- The Drug Policy Alliance report doesn’t delve into the racial breakdown of the cases, but data presented at the organization’s annual conference last month in Atlanta examined a small subset of 30 drug-induced homicide cases and found that 56 percent involved black dealers who sold to white customers.
- This past summer, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that expanded the state’s first-degree murder code to include selling a lethal dose of fentanyl. The first person charged under the law is 18-year-old Tamas Harris, who is black. If convicted, Harris faces the death penalty.