The morning after I overdosed in a South Denver motel, I grabbed my cash and boarded a bus to return to the same spot. The night before had been a bad one. I’d been waiting for hours in a cramped motel room with my partner and a group of strangers. When the dope arrived, I was sick and reckless. I’m told I was instantly gone, which checks out with what I remember—nothing. There was no naloxone, and the room was filled with drugs. That meant no one was going to call 911.
A young meth user tried to revive me by punching and massaging my chest, hoping to get my heart beating again. I was lucky: Somehow that method worked, and I awoke to give her a grateful hug before stumbling back to the bus that would take me to the broken-down van I was living out of in Boulder, Colorado. The next day, all I could think about was getting back to that motel. That heroin was the best I’d ever had. I mean, it had almost killed me. I wanted more.
Now, over four years into recovery, I’m appalled that the first thing I did the morning after was go back for seconds. But that’s what it’s like to be addicted to heroin: It’s a life that constantly hedges death. I wanted to avoid an overdose this time, so I planned to be more careful with my dosing when I got back to the motel. Of course, that’s what every drug user tells himself. With approximately 175 overdoses a day throughout the country, it should be clear that many aren’t as careful as they plan to be.
As those overdose deaths rise, so does the pressure on federal and state governments to do something about it, with severe results. Several states have started tackling drug overdoses similarly to murders, with law enforcement targeting the dealer—or sharer, as is often the case—who supplies the overdoser in what have come to be known as drug-induced homicide laws. When I consider these laws in the context of that evening in Denver, one of my closest brushes with death, I can’t help but think how useless it would have been to track down the people in that room with me, or the man who handed me the heroin—not even a dealer at all, but a homeless man who used heroin to self-medicate pain from an accident that left one of his arms palsied. They didn’t trick me into overdosing. I overdosed because I was thinking the same way many people in the throes of heroin addiction think every day. We understand the risks we’re taking, and we take them anyway, because the high takes precedence above anything else.
But sympathy has always been hard-won for heroin users, and as the problem only worsens, public patience is running thin. The justice system is looking at new, tougher ways to crack down on drug offenders, which is where drug-induced homicide charges come in. Last year, for example, Florida passed into law a bill that would allow prosecutors to charge drug dealers with capital murder if their clients fatally overdose on fentanyl or other similar opioid analogues. Bundled in with allowances for increased naloxone access (the drug that can reverse an overdose), the bill passed unanimously when the vote went up in May 2017. House Bill 477 was written in response to the influx of overdose deaths that are being driven by illegally manufactured fentanyl, a drug that can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin but is often added without the user’s knowledge—or in many cases, that of the direct supplier.
Proponents of these laws argue that they deter drug trafficking, especially that of fentanyl. The legislation is based on the idea that people who sell drugs are greed-driven predators who are abusing addicts—and when that abuse results in death, why not prosecute it like more straightforward cases of homicide? “We think it’s important to hold these drug traffickers and dealers responsible,” the chair for the Florida Sheriffs’ Association’s legislative committee, a group that was aggressively pushing for the law in that state, told the Miami Herald last year. “They’re responsible for making money off the backs of these victims.”
Florida, where opioid-induced homicide is now a capital offense, might be the strictest state, but it’s far from alone. In 2017, 13 states introduced bills designed to create or strengthen existing drug-induced homicide laws. Twenty states and the federal government currently have drug-induced homicide laws on the books, and others that do not sometimes still charge people who deliver drugs that result in overdose with felony murder, depraved-heart murder (which requires prosecutors to prove only that the defendant knew the action taken was potentially lethal, but not that he intended harm), and manslaughter. Six states now carry minimum life sentences for drug homicide convictions.
There is no comprehensive data that compiles all drug-induced homicide charges and convictions, but a recent report by The Drug Policy Alliance measured media mentions of cases and found that news stories on the topic of drug-induced homicide jumped from 363 in 2011 to 1,178 in 2016. This is partly a reflection of the new laws that have been added in some states, but also an indication that states which already had them on the books have renewed interest in pursuing these difficult-to-prosecute laws. With few exceptions, these stories tend to report the allegations and charges, but press stories do not often follow low-level dealers through their cases—to say nothing about broader stories about whether the laws are having any impact on the opioid crisis. So while they may give the appearance that policymakers are springing into action on the overdose crisis, we don’t actually have any idea how effective they’ve been.
It’s likely that these laws even make the crisis worse by unfairly targeting people suffering from addiction, diverting attention toward a self-replenishing supply chain and away from harm reduction or recovery, and scaring users from reporting overdoses while they are able to be reversed. Worse, these laws fail to account for the addiction mentality, which drives users to seek the most potent high possible despite known risks.
Take it from me: I spent five years addicted to heroin, and overdosed nine times. And I keep going back to that South Denver overdose to think about the people who would have been blamed for my death.
Drug-induced homicide cases often hinge on tracing the cell phone records of overdose victims. Had I died in that motel, my cell phone records would not have led the police to a drug kingpin, or even a proper dealer, but to a homeless man and his acquaintance who drove me to the motel, where several other users were also awaiting a seller I would never even set eyes on. Both men were picking up drugs for themselves as well, hoping to score a couple extra bucks or a little more dope by setting up my sale.
Because it was one of them who actually took my money and handed me the drug, he would technically have been the distributor of my lethal dose, which is all it takes to qualify someone for homicide charges in Colorado. That’s how these laws tend to work: not by toppling kingpins and cartels, but by imprisoning low-level dealers, drug runners and regular users who are fueling their own addictions. While some states, like Vermont and New Jersey have included language in the statutes specifying that these laws are aimed at higher-level dealers, other states have made no distinction.
Take the case of Angela Halliday. She was arrested in Madison County, Illinois, on a drug-induced homicide charge the day after her boyfriend fatally overdosed. Halliday was charged with two deaths: an acquaintance who died a few days earlier, and her boyfriend. In both cases, Halliday was involved in the deal only as someone “going in” on the purchase. The only crime she committed was being addicted to heroin herself.
Halliday’s case made splashy headlines in Illinois. But as Halliday notes to me over the phone, it's pretty hard to make that kind of charge stick. Where’s the intent? How do you definitively link her to the deal? She eventually—and quietly—pled down to delivery of controlled substances. Unlike the initial charges, the plea deal did not make headlines. In the eyes of the world, Halliday was imprisoned for murder by drug sale.
Even without spending the 30 years in prison that would have accompanied the homicide conviction, Halliday says the case ruined her life. Once a crisis and intervention worker who blogged about philosophy, Halliday reports that despite being heroin-free for over a year, she now works as many shifts waitressing as she can pick up just to pay rent on the motel where she lives. “I can’t find anyone to rent me an apartment or anyone willing to be my roommate,” she admits, her tone resigned. I find it hard to believe that either her friend or her boyfriend would have wanted that for her.
Halliday's loud arrest and quiet plea deal showcase the real reason behind these laws. They aren't in place because they balance the scales of justice, but because at least some people think they’re effective scare tactics. Prosecutors hardly deny this. “We wanted to set a precedent,” Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori Reiman told the Olean Times-Herald in 2017 after the conviction of first-time dealer Chelsea Lyons. “Hopefully, it sends out a message to drug dealers that we’re going to do what we can to stop this.”
The problem is that these laws do send out a message, but not the one prosecutors intend. Instead of deterring people from selling drugs, these overzealous laws scare users from calling for help when someone overdoses. A study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that a majority of drug users surveyed were afraid to dial 911 during an overdose due to fear of police action. This included data from states that have Good Samaritan laws, which theoretically allow drug users to report overdoses without legal repercussions. Add laws that treat dealers, and even sharers, as murderers, and that same fear of police action could get much more lethal. (Good Samaritan laws don’t extend to shielding the 911 caller from potential murder charges in most of the states that have them on the books.)
Nonetheless, the laws persist, in part because they are not driven by logic or justice, but by emotion.
Some of the most vocal supporters of these laws are the families of the victims—like Kristy Dyroff whose son Wesley Greer died from fentanyl poisoning. According to an article published in the Orlando Sentinel, she not only seeks to punish those responsible for her son's death, but also encourages the same from the families of other overdose victims. “I know my son would be proud of his mom,” she told the paper.
Dyroff is not alone. Cheryl Towery lost her 22-year old daughter Elaina to an overdose in 2017. In an interview with Fox WJBK, she pledges to make sure dealers are held accountable. “People down here on the street selling this to people need to be locked up,” Towery says.
I can't speak for Wesley Greer or Elaina Towery, but as someone who barely escaped joining the same statistical pool, I would not want my family pursuing the people who supplied my drugs. From the perspective of someone who intimately understands addiction, these laws are harmful and misinformed.
When I ask Halliday how she feels about those families who say they are advocating these laws on behalf of their deceased children, she echoes my sentiment. “I’ve never met anybody who did heroin who was comforted by the fact that if they overdose the person who sold it or their friends would be charged for that—nobody, there is none.”