Prosecutors across the U.S. have revived old laws to prosecute the people who supply the drugs that lead to overdoses. Critics characterize this as another ineffective technique in the ineffective tough-on-crime approach to drug addiction. Instead of incarcerating the high-level drug traffickers the laws originally targeted, they treat family, friends, and small-time dealers as murderers. For The New Republic, Jack Shuler looks at a few recent cases of drug-induced homicide, explains this tactic’s origins, and it ineffectiveness.
While this trend began prior to Donald Trump’s election, it has accelerated since he assumed office. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, a federal agency, there was a 10 percent increase in 2017 in the number of people who received federal prison sentences for distributing drugs resulting in death or serious injury and a nearly 200 percent increase since 2013. Trump has made it clear that he favors an aggressive approach to the opioid crisis. “My take is you have to get really, really tough—really mean—with the drug pushers and the drug dealers,” Trump said in February, during a speech in Blue Ash, Ohio.
Trump has pushed this rhetoric to its logical conclusion, suggesting that drug dealers should face the death penalty, an idea he said he got from Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has also expressed admiration for President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for his violent approach to curbing drug trafficking. In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to the 93 U.S. attorneys reminding them that they have the power to pursue capital punishment in certain drug-related cases.
This aggressive approach has filtered down to the local level. In Ohio, residents have ample reason to be frustrated with the bodies piling up in the state’s morgues; the strain on health care, police and emergency services, and the workforce—a cost of up to billions of dollars every year; and the emotional pain it’s causing families. Last summer in Middletown, Ohio, a city of 50,000 near Cincinnati, city council member Dan Picard proposed a three strikes policy for overdose rescues. Overdose victims would be required to perform community service to make up for the cost of treatment—and if a 911 dispatcher determined that someone who was overdosing had not performed community service, they would not dispatch emergency services. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to maintain our financial security, and this is just costing us too much money,” Picard told a local news station. First responders balked at the proposal, but the anger that bred it persists. Stickers that say SHOOT YOUR LOCAL HEROIN DEALER have started to appear on truck windows around the state. In Summit County, where the opioid crisis is so bad they have had to use refrigerated trailers as morgues, prosecutors have charged 49 people with manslaughter in connection to an overdose since 2014. And in Licking County, at least four people in addition to Tommy Kosto were charged for supplying drugs that led others to overdose between 2016 and 2017.