When a child dies, our natural impulse is often to look for someone to blame—and some way of making them pay for the incalculable pain they have caused. But while this desire for revenge is understandable, when it comes to drug-related deaths, it can do far more harm than good.
Take the case of Tara Fitzgerald, a 17-year-old Minnesota honor student who died in January of an overdose of the synthetic hallucinogen 25i-NBOMe. Known as N-Bomb, the super-potent drug is similar to LSD but far more dangerous (while an LSD overdose can cause unpleasant hallucinations that can last for weeks, at least it won’t kill you).
Five teens have just been arrested for murder in her case: a 19-year-old dealer who was caught with 305 doses of the drug; another 19-year-old, who bought the drug from him; and three younger adolescents, all 17, who sold it down the chain to Fitzgerald. She took it along with a girlfriend during a sleepover—but that friend apparently has not been charged. All of the others, including the 17-year-olds, are being charged as adults—with third-degree murder.
“When an illegal drug enters our community, all of those involved—those who create it, sell it or give it away—are responsible for what happens with that drug,” the local county attorney said by way of explaining the extremely harsh charges. “We think there’s a moral obligation to keep kids free of drugs. We’re sending a message that suppliers will be held fully to account.”
Although getting lengthy sentences for these teens may provide some satisfaction to prosecutors—and perhaps to Fitzgerald’s family—that “something has been done,” the ultimate results are unfortunately likely to be counter-productive. The immediate effect could be to compound the tragedy so that five additional families are further devastated as a result of adolescent misjudgment—and the long-term outcome will not be to reduce dealing, but instead to deter help-seeking when overdose is suspected.
Sorting out "users" from "dealers"—especially among teens—can be a tricky business. Almost every user has purchased drugs at least once for friends or shared drugs with others, both of which are legally considered dealing. But it’s not at all clear that one is more criminally responsible than the other.
Here’s why. Sorting out “users” from “dealers”—especially among teens—can be a tricky business. Almost every user has purchased drugs at least once for friends or shared drugs with others, both of which are legally considered dealing. Most teen “dealers” are also users themselves. In the main, they sell extremely small amounts or simply pool money to make purchases; their motivation is not profit, but to supply themselves and their friends and enhance social ties. In the U.K., this is referred to as “social dealing” and sentencing guidelines suggest reduced penalties in such cases.
That’s because today’s “dealer” may well be tomorrow’s “user”—and vice versa. Consequently, it’s not at all clear that one is more criminally responsible than the other. A similar approach is often taken with addicted dealers, who are trying to support their own habits, not profit from those of others. In the case of both adolescence and addiction—and particularly with the two together—decision-making is not exactly optimal and well considered.
Given all this, when a fatal overdose occurs, the odds are that the victim had previously committed the same crimes as the people who are charged in the death have—and luck is a far greater factor in determining which person overdosed and which did not.
This is not to say either that dealers have no responsibility in these deaths or that there aren’t any overdose victims who have never sold or shared drugs. However, lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for dealers and murder prosecutions for ODs have failed to reduce the supply of drugs. And drug war “successes” like taking out two big LSD labs in 2000 have led not to a reduction in the demand for hallucinogens but to the availability of more dangerous drugs like nBOME, which was synthesized in 2003 and first sold online in 2010.
Perhaps even more important, harsh penalties for dealing and possession deter help-seeking at a time when seconds may count—the last thing an overdose victim’s parents should want is those people around the victim worrying about whether or not they’ll get in trouble if they call 911. (Indeed, Tara Fitzgerald’s parents made a point of telling the press that “if there’s a lesson in the tragedy, it’s that all teenagers should know to summon help—even if they’ve done something wrong—to save a life.”) That’s why 15 states and the District of Columbia so far have passed “Good Samaritan” laws, which exempt people who call for help from being prosecuted for possession of small amounts of drugs.
If we want to prevent deaths like Fitzgerald’s, prosecuting for murder the hapless teens who sold to her is not the way to go. While they certainly should face some consequences, these should be proportionate and rehabilitative. It makes no sense to ruin five lives to "send a message" to those who are either too young or too impaired (or both) to benefit from it.
Charging and sentencing in such cases should explicitly take into account youth and any addictions—not bizarrely assume that because an overdose occurred, a 17-year-old “dealer” suddenly has the maturity to face adult criminal responsibility.
Instead, we need to recognize that adolescents are always going to take stupid risks—whether using, dealing, driving fast, or in other ways—and try to reduce the odds that the outcome will be fatal. Throwing more people in jail might satisfy a desire for vengeance, but it makes overdose deaths more likely, not less. Your kid could just as easily be the addicted person whose poor judgment leads to a charge of causing an overdose as the person who falls victim to one.