Heroin in the US: The Absurdity of Drug-Induced Homicide Charges

With drug-induced homicide charges for heroin dealers becoming increasingly common in certain US states, the question arises; is this heavy-handed approach really proportionate in light of the damage caused by legal substances? 

In the case of alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs, the users by and large tend to be treated in isolation from the manufacturer and distributor. Large companies distributing these substances are rarely called to account for the millions who die annually as a direct result their misuse. If that is the case for these drug providers, one would assume that those who sell heroin are similarly free from criminal responsibility in cases of death from misuse.

Not always. While alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies are able to largely diffuse responsibility to the user, numerous people in the United States are being sent to prison for reckless, or drug-induced homicide after they sold heroin to those who ultimately succumbed to an overdose.

Since the 1980s, these type of laws have been passed in several states across the country -- among them, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Oregon, Kansas, Washington, Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey -- and apply to the supply any controlled substance. However, the application of such laws is more frequently seen in cases involving heroin, as noted by USA today. The penalties associated with first degree reckless, and drug-induced homicide charges are state dependent, but can apply to anyone in the drug supply chain, providing prosecutors with "leverage to force plea agreements and get information on larger dealers."

According to one district attorney in Wisconsin, the logic behind these charges is to “send that message to the community that ... selling heroin does have these significant ramifications.” Are “significant ramifications” in the form of a homicide charge really just, though?

By briefly examining the disparate treatment of those selling some (sanctioned) substances in comparison to other (unsanctioned) substances, the scale of hypocrisy -- in the name of legality and illegality -- is staggering. These heavy penalty charges (up to 25 years in Wisconsin, and up to 30 years in Illinois) are questionable for a number of reasons. A comparison of just how destructive these substances are in the US serves as a good starting point.

The number of deaths from licit substances in the country is colossal, as figures published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show. In 2011, alcoholic liver disease deaths reached 16,749, while alcohol-induced deaths -- excluding accidents and homicides -- totaled 26,654. Cigarette smoking mortalities come in at around 480,000 annually and prescription drug overdoses stood at approximately 22,810 in 2011. In comparison, the CDC estimated the number of heroin overdoses 4,397 in 2011.

This is not to advocate that the charge of drug-induced homicide be applied to vendors of legal substances (N.B.. there are cases where it is used against people illegally selling prescription opiates). Rather, it is to highlight the complete disproportionality with which it is applied, and show that it is based not on the associated harm of the substance being sold being higher than another, but an illogical drug policy framework that is set on demonizing anything and everything involved with what is criminalized under it. 

Additionally, it has been inferred by one defense attorney who spoke to USA Today that the increase in this type of legislation across the US is in part race-related. The attorney, Wisconsin-based Robin Shellow, cites research published in JAMA Psychiatry earlier this year, which indicates that 90 percent of new heroin users over the last decade have been white, something he concludes has led to more pressure being placed on prosecutors from people “capable of bringing power and influence to bear.”

Ultimately, the argument that prosecuting sellers of heroin for homicide will act as a strong deterrent is weak. To some extent this ineffectiveness is demonstrated by the rise of heroin use annually in the US since 2007, with 669,000 Americans reported to have used heroin in 2012.

This year's media frenzy over the United States' so-called heroin "epidemic" likely means that the spate of heroin-related homicide charges will not be abating any time soon, with one Harvard Law professor predicting prosecutors will pursue the charge "much more aggressively" over the coming 10-15 years. Expect this to have little impact other than further marginalizing those caught up in the heroin trade.