The news on Wednesday that Cameron James Pettit had been arrested in connection with the death of the rapper Mac Miller brought Miller's overdose back to the headlines. The up-and-coming artist’s death last September from a cocktail of alcohol, cocaine and fentanyl is symptomatic of the crisis that our country is undergoing right now. Latest data estimates that overdoses kill around 68,000 Americans a year. It is clear this is a public health crisis.
Yet this week’s federal charges show that the Trump administration is intent on doubling down on the drug war in a way that is both futile and counterproductive. Prosecuting someone for drug-induced homicide may seem like a way to secure justice, but in reality it repeats the mistakes of the 1980s.
This week’s federal charges show that the Trump administration is intent on doubling down on the drug war in a way that is both futile and counterproductive.
The overdose crisis has been with us for over a decade, beginning with prescription drugs, morphing into heroin, and has now become a synthetic drug crisis — with fentanyl deaths continuing to drive overdose fatalities. And yet amid the hundreds of thousands of total overdose deaths, few have caught the attention of the general public. It is the high-profile deaths, like those of Prince and Tom Petty, that shock us out of our apathy. Mac Miller’s demise at 26 was similarly devastating for fans.
In response, many lawmakers and members of law enforcement have dusted off the drug war playbook, reviving policies that were initiated at the height of the crack era. One such strategy — used in the Miller case — is “drug-induced homicide” laws. These laws exist in at least 20 states and at the federal level, and are used primarily to prosecute drug sellers. As with all drug laws, the purpose is to target the big fish, but often end up hurting lower-level individuals instead, in the process exacerbating the overdose crisis while doing little to reduce the actual supply of drugs.
In 2016, the Justice Department concluded that increasing the severity of a sentence has no impact on the supply of drugs. Once a drug seller is arrested, the market simply replaces that person. Even more concerning, such laws can make drug users less likely to call emergency services if they believe they may be at risk of criminal prosecution.
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Indeed, many drug-induced homicide cases involve individuals who gave drugs to their friends or relatives. In 2014, Amy Shemberger bought heroin for her and her boyfriend, something she had done often. After her boyfriend overdosed and died, Amy was arrested and charged with drug-induced homicide. She is currently serving seven years in prison.
Instead of pouring funding into police and prison construction, we should be expanding naloxone distribution, increasing access to methadone and buprenorphine and opening safe consumption spaces.
Is the world a safer place because Amy is in prison? Will her incarceration result in a reduction in overdose deaths? The answer in all instances is almost certainly no and underlines the futility of such approaches. The case of Miller is still fuzzy, but it appears he bought drugs from his regular suppliers. He died in large part because the pills he bought contained fentanyl. Whether he or his contacts knew about the fentanyl is unclear. In fact, it is common for drug sellers and users alike not to know the precise content of their substances.
Focusing on arresting drug users and low-level drug sellers perpetuates the drug war and does not reduce overdose deaths. As Northeastern law professor Leo Beletsky wrote in 2017, America "has long held criminal punishment to be an antidote to drug-related harms, but the opioid crisis has laid bare the folly of this approach." Beletsky, an expert in the public health impact of laws and their enforcement, noted that, in fact, "the fear of legal repercussions likely costs thousands of Americans’ their lives each year. What fuels these deadly fears? High-profile prosecutions tied to overdose events."
Instead of pouring funding into police and prison construction, we should be expanding naloxone distribution, increasing access to methadone and buprenorphine and opening safe consumption spaces. These three interventions have a far better track record of reducing overdose deaths than any drug-induced homicide law.
Mac Miller’s death is a tragedy, but we must not use overdose deaths — high-profile or not — to escalate the failed war on drugs. To make sure overdoses like Miller’s don’t happen again, we must embrace public health over prosecution. To do otherwise is to repeat the mistakes of the past.