Rhode Island Wants to Treat Drug Dealers Like Murderers

The Democrat-controlled Rhode Island state Senate agrees with President Donald Trump that harsher punishments are needed for drug dealers. Wrong!


Bill Graveland/ZUMA Press/Newscom

On February 17, 2014, 29-year-old Kristen Coutu injected herself for the last time.

Coutu was found dead in her car in Cranston, Rhode Island, around 11 p.m. What she apparently had thought was heroin turned out to be pure fentanyl, a much more powerful opioid. The man who sold her the drugs, Aaron Andrade, was charged with second-degree murder, pleaded guilty, and is now serving a 40-year sentence.

He could have had it even worse. Under a bill just passed by the Rhode Island state Senate, drug dealers could be sentenced to life in prison if drugs they sell are used in a fatal overdose. (A version of the bill is now being considered in the Rhode Island House.) "Kristen's Law" has been backed by prosecutors and relatives of overdose victims, such as Coutu's mother. The bill is supposed to deter drug dealers, but critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say it will do little to stem the flow of drugs and will likely end up hurting the drug users it is supposed to help.

"The criminalization of drug use over the last hundred plus years has not only failed to stem the tide of substance use and associated disorders, it's led to mass incarceration disproportionately affecting communities of color and low income communities," substance abuse expert Lisa Peterson told lawmakers during a hearing on the bill. The Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the legislation, points out that it can be difficult to differentiate between drug users and drug dealers, who are often struggling to fund their own habit.

From Rhode Island's Democrat-controlled state Senate to the White House—where President Donald Trump has floated the idea of giving drug dealers the death penalty—members of both major parties have tried to tackle the opioid problem with yet more enforcement and punishment. They should learn instead from the drug war's failures. Cracking down on dealers does little to inhibit drug crime; it does much more to put a fiscal strain on taxpayers. Furthermore, while it's difficult to measure precisely how many low-level drug dealers are also addicts, but as Kathryn Casteel points out it's safe to assume a reasonable degree of overlap between these two groups. Legislation like Kristen's Law will needlessly subject destitute addicts (who are often unaware of what they are selling) to expensive and harsh punishment instead of letting them get treatment they need.

Above all, officials need to realize that overdoses and murders are two completely different things. Treating them as the same doesn't do anything to help anyone. Twenty states already have similar laws on the books and many others prosecute such cases through their standard homicide statutes, yet the opioid crisis rages on.

"She didn't ask to die," Kristen's mother testified to the Rhode Island House. "She didn't ask for a lethal dose of fentanyl that would have killed someone much bigger than her."

She's right. Kristen didn't ask to die. And as long as drug users have no reliable way to tell what they're putting into their bodies, more people are going to die this way. All the more reason to roll back the senseless rules preventing a fully above-ground market in legal, accurately labeled opioids.