The trend to reimagine a drug overdose into a murder has been going on for a while. Hysteria takes hold, the word “epidemic” grabs us by our throats and we begin to accept the premise that “something must be done.” But turning the corner from a useful, rational approach to solving a problem to the knee-jerk resort to harsh, unhelpful and carceral responses is just a breathlessly outraged scream away.
When a bullet-riddled body turns up in a gutter, there’s no question that a police investigation will follow. When a person dies of a drug overdose, however, police often dismiss it as a case of self-harm and close the file. That’s a mindset that should change so that victims’ families get justice and so murderers — make no mistake, dealers in fatal overdoses are murderers — get taken off the streets.
“Make no mistake” isn’t an argument. It’s playing your emotions by circumventing reason because someone ends up dead. Any needless dead person is a tragedy, even if it’s death by overdose at the drug user’s own hand. But it’s not even remotely similar to the bullet-riddled body, where someone deliberately cause the death of another person.
And it may be that the dead person, not necessarily a victim of anyone other than themselves, will leave behind a grieving family. So too does the person killed in a fatal car accident. So too does the person who dies of cancer. Much as we can empathize with their loss, the loss doesn’t give rise to a cry of murder. Tragedy happens. That alone has nothing to do with the tragedy being a murder.
Indeed, police and prosecutors should cast the widest possible net, targeting not only the street-level dealers and prescription-happy doctors who can be linked to specific deaths but the pharmaceutical companies, suppliers and fat-cat executives whose reckless distribution of highly addictive drugs fed the victims’ fatal appetite.
Drug dealing is already illegal, even when the drugs are being sold by doc-owned drug mills. And Big Pharma has made a killing by pushing docs to prescribe opioids. All of which may well be cause for concern, or may have nothing to do with the problem despite the superficial connections that lack anything more than assumptions of causation.
It may be close enough for an insipid demand for investigation and prosecution, but law requires evidence, proof, that someone caused death with the requisite mental state. There may well be other issues at play with regard to Big Pharma, but it’s not murder. Not even when it’s an “epidemic.”
Yet, that hasn’t stopped a push to manufacture murder out of tragedy as a Menckian response.
Murder charges are a powerful tool. Conspiracy and racketeering charges are, too. As Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and his counterparts in 40 other states continue a joint investigation into a handful of drugmakers and distributors, they should aim to bury lawbreakers under an avalanche of criminal and civil penalties.
There’s a good chance that many won’t shed a tear for drugmakers pushing oxy on physicians and their patients, ignoring the unintended consequence that chronic pain-sufferers are being denied solace by docs who fear a beancounter from DEA will drop by. But once the steamroller of prosecution gets rolling, it’s not the guys in suits who get crushed.
Prosecutors, medical examiners and coroners who treat overdoses as homicides serve as models for a justice system that must do more to stem the body count. Beaver County District Attorney David J. Lozier is setting an example by deploying a team, in cooperation with the attorney general’s office, on every fatal overdose. It gathers evidence and tries to identify the dealer and arrange a quick buy in the hope of tying the drug investigators’ purchase to that found in the victim. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has held training sessions for municipal police agencies and provided them a disc with instructions for pursuing drug-related murder cases.
Prosecutors are being taught to treat, to go after, pushers as murderers because we’ve learned nothing from the War on Drugs over the past 40 years, and this time will be different? Drug dealing sentences have long been on par with murder sentences, under the simplistic assumption that ever-longer sentences will deter people from selling drugs. It didn’t work before. It won’t work now. We know it doesn’t work, but so what? Longer, harsher, 50 years, a million years, just keep piling on more and eventually it has to work, right?
Maybe the problem isn’t just that the assumption is fundamentally wrong, but that it hasn’t been sufficiently sold to the public and participants in the system?
To accelerate the process, law enforcement training programs, law schools, victim advocacy groups and other criminal justice organizations should emphasize the importance of treating overdoses as homicides and dealers as potential serial killers.
If only law students are trained to believe that drug dealers are “potential serial killers,” that will finally fix the problem? Certainly victim advocacy groups will grab hold of the outrage to back up the most emotionally appealing, if substantively empty, arguments because of their heartache at the loss. And for the prosecutors who believe they’re the avenging angels of society, ridding it of the blight of demon drugs, every tool that enables them to slay their foes more effectively is welcome, even if it fails to accomplish any actual goal.
This editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows not how to deal with the latest hysteria, but how the empty rhetoric — “serial killers”? Seriously? — of outrage has become the stock in trade of public discourse. Take a few handy adjectives, a carefully chosen epithet and wrap them up with a bow of fallacious logic and you can whip the unduly emotional into a frenzy.
Murder? The word evokes a visceral response. There are dead bodies, and to the intellectually challenged, the mantra “something must be done” is sufficient to justify a completely unhelpful response. The War on Drugs not only failed, but cost dearly in terms of collateral damage.
So let’s make the same mistakes again, because this time the outcome will be different? Yet, many will read an editorial like this and believe it will work, just like they did the first time (and second, and third) we bought the lie that if we just make punishment harsher, the problem will go away.