Many Prosecutors Target Drug Partners in Overdose Cases

A New York Times investigation found overdose prosecutions in 36 states. And in a sample of 15 states, prosecutions of friends, partners and siblings of accidental overdose victims doubled between 2015 and 2017.

As overdose deaths mount, prosecutors in many jurisdictions are increasingly treating them as homicide scenes and looking to hold someone criminally accountable, reports the New York Times. Using laws devised to go after drug dealers, they are charging friends, partners and siblings. The accused include young people who shared drugs at a party and a son who gave his mother heroin after her pain medication had been cut off. Many are fellow users, themselves struggling with addiction. Prosecutors say overdose prosecutions are simply one tool in a box that should include prevention and treatment. But there is no consensus on their purpose. Some believe they will reduce the flow of drugs into their communities, deter drug use or help those with addiction “hit bottom.” To others, the cases are not meant to achieve public policy goals, but as a balm for grieving families or punishment for a callous act.

“I look at it in a real micro way,” said Pete Orput, the chief prosecutor in Washington County outside Minneapolis. “You owe me for that dead kid.” In 15 states where data was available, the Times found more than 1,000 prosecutions or arrests in accidental overdose deaths since 2015. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of cases nearly doubled. Dozens more cases were documented in news reports. In all, overdose prosecutions were found in 36 states, with charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. Many of those convicted are serving hard time: A Louisiana man who injected his fiancée — both were addicted, his lawyer said — got life without parole.