Treating overdose deaths like murder will only deter 911 calls for help

Posted 6/3/19

On Wednesday, 24-year-old Emma Semler was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison for her friend’s overdose death. The Inquirer’s Jeremy Roebuck and Aubrey Whelan reported that in 2014, Emma met …

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Treating overdose deaths like murder will only deter 911 calls for help

Posted

On Wednesday, 24-year-old Emma Semler was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison for her friend’s overdose death. The Inquirer’s Jeremy Roebuck and Aubrey Whelan reported that in 2014, Emma met up with Jennifer Rose Werstler, a friend she had met in rehab. The two used heroin together in a bathroom of a restaurant in West Philadelphia. Jennifer overdosed and died. Emma, who brought the drugs and left the scene, was later charged by federal prosecutors and convicted of heroin distribution — which has a mandatory minimum of 20 years if it involves a death.

Emma’s story is not rare in Pennsylvania. In an effort to deter drug use, prosecutors are charging people who provide a drug that causes an overdose with homicide — often called “drug-induced homicide” or “drug delivery resulting in death.”

Pennsylvania district attorneys use this charge more than prosecutors in any state. Three out of the top five counties that use these charges most often are in Pennsylvania. Lancaster tops the list with 66 charges in 2018 — a shocking number considering the estimated 107 overdose deaths in the county that year. According to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, charges of drug delivery in death increased 1,267 percent between 2013 to 2017.

The logic that such charges may prevent overdose deaths is rooted in the false idea that people who sell or provide drugs and people who use drugs are two distinct groups — the former members of a criminal enterprise, the latter, people who are sick and need treatment. But people who use drugs often share them, or sell them to support their addiction.

The Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University analyzed more than 200 drug-induced homicide cases. In about half of those cases, the person charged was a friend, family member, caretaker, or the partner of the victim — not a “traditional” dealer.

The irony is that while there is no evidence that drug delivery resulting in death charges deter drug use, there is reason to believe that they deter another behavior — calling 911.

In 2014, Pennsylvania passed a Good Samaritan law that provides immunity from certain state-level drug charges when a person seeks help in the event of an overdose. The purpose of the law was to ensure that people call 911 when someone next to them overdoses, even if they are in possession of drugs. But according to Leo Beletsky, the faculty director of Health in Justice and drug policy expert, the Pennsylvania law is very limited. For starters, like all state law, it doesn’t offer any protection from federal prosecution. Nor does it provide protection from a drug delivery resulting in death charge.

The state Good Samaritan law can be amended to protect against homicide charges; this change could prevent the deaths resulting from people who are too afraid to call 911. Only a national Good Samaritan law can prevent a harsh sentence in federal court.

A common refrain from politicians and prosecutors in Pennsylvania is that addiction is a disease, not a crime. But by charging people in addiction who shared drugs as murderers, their action tells a different story.

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