She Was Sentenced to 21 Years in Prison for Handing Drugs to a Friend Who Overdosed. A Federal Court Wasn't Having It.

The case is a good reminder of the far-reaching effects of the war on drugs.


On May 9, 2014, Emma Semler, then a teenager, shot up heroin with her friend, Jenny Werstler, in a West Philadelphia KFC bathroom. The former made it out alive. The latter did not.

A little over five years later to the day, Semler was sentenced to more than two decades behind bars for distribution of heroin resulting in death after she physically handed Werstler the baggie that would lead to her overdose. The charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. Semler received 21 years' imprisonment, along with six years' supervised release and a $2,500 fine.

A federal court reversed that this week, vacating Semler's conviction and sentence.

The distribution charge and its mandatory punishment are both rooted in the war on drugs and meant to zero in on dealers. But Semler found herself caught up in its dragnet because she passed the heroin to Werstler, who had asked for it—an absurdly literal reading of the law, and a reminder of the far-reaching implications of well-meaning attempts to crack down on drug use.

"Turning to a plain reading of the statute, we are not persuaded by the government's sweeping interpretation," wrote Circuit Judge Jane Richards Roth of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. "The government would have us believe that if two drug addicts jointly and simultaneously purchase methamphetamine and return home to smoke it together, a 'distribution' has occurred each time the addicts pass the pipe back and forth to each other. Such an interpretation diverts punishment from traffickers to addicts, who contribute to the drug trade only as end users and who already suffer disproportionally from its dangerous effects."

As teenagers, Werstler and Semler first met at a Delaware County rehab center. They both relapsed, and in 2014, on Werstler's 20th birthday, she contacted Semler via Facebook Messenger for help purchasing heroin. Semler responded that she did not have a car. Werstler did, but asked if Semler could furnish a syringe and water bottle for the injection, and if she could borrow $10 to buy the heroin. Semler obliged.

Semler's sister, who was also present that evening, testified that she could not remember who actually completed the purchase.

But that didn't necessarily matter, because it was Semler who physically passed off the drug to Werstler when the three entered that KFC bathroom. All shot up independently. Werstler then requested a second injection to celebrate her birthday, after which point she began to overdose. The two sisters threw cold water on her and attempted to revive her but eventually exited the building and did not call 911.

The case is nauseating, and no serious person could argue that the Semler sisters displayed anything approaching human decency when they fled KFC and left Werstler there to die. But perhaps it's the tough-on-crime, drug-warrior statutes—like the one Emma Semler was convicted under—that discourage such people from calling for help when those situations go miserably awry.

That wasn't lost on Richards Roth, who was nominated to the bench by former President Ronald Reagan. "Indeed, the threat of harsh penalties in any joint-use situation could jeopardize addicts' safety even more by deterring them from using together specifically so that one can intervene if another overdoses," she said. "Moreover, given the prevalence of shared drug use, a too-broad construction of 'transfer' risks arbitrary enforcement."

Whether or not she intended it to be, the above excerpt is broadly applicable to drug enforcement—and the ways in which it backfires—writ large. Black markets incentivize many things. Safety is not among them. Common, however, are upticks in crime and violence, as users cannot litigate anything out in the open, and even more dangerous strains, which proliferate without any quality control. Overzealous enforcement often leaves addicts resigned to lengthy periods in cages. Those individuals are more likely to suffer from severe mental health issues, perhaps the reason why some started using drugs in the first place.

Semler was an addict, though she is not any longer, having gotten sober a year after Werstler's death. Prior to her conviction, she worked as a marketer for a drug rehab center in New Jersey and sponsored several other young women who struggle with similar issues. Even so, until this week, she was doomed to sit behind bars for the next several decades—a harsher sentence than the maximum Pennsylvania allows for third-degree murder, though Werstler freely chose to take those drugs that evening.

That doesn't change the fact that Semler should have called for help. It's not far-fetched to assume she was discouraged from doing so for fear that the state would nail her for her drug use. She wasn't wrong.

NEXT: Journal of Hospital Medicine Apologizes for Using the Words Tribe and Tribalism

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  1. That is terrific news.

    God for her that she was set free and that she is also now sober.

    1. From the decision:

      "Therefore, we will order a new trial in which the jury can be provided a joint possession/simultaneous acquisition/personal use instruction."

      "For the foregoing reasons, we will vacate the District Court’s judgments of conviction and sentence and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. "

      It sounds like there is going to be a new trial. I don't know if she's released or not. She probably should be, though.

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    2. jeff you haven't been sober since 2011.

      1. Nor has he put the fork down.

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  2. My state has a Good Samaritan law to prevent this specific thing from occurring.

  3. “We do not rule that Semler is not guilty of distribution, or that she and Werstler were joint purchasers of the heroin that caused Werstler’s overdose,” Roth wrote. “We leave those questions of fact to a properly instructed jury on remand.”

  4. One of the most welcome casualties, when our liberal-libertarian mainstream finally overruns our vestigial right-wing clingers and wins complete victory in the American culture war, will be the drug warriors.

    Those who chose authoritarian conservative prudishness as a livelihood can then try to find honorable employment or starve. Either result would be acceptable.

    1. Just out of curiosity, who do you think is the highest-ranking drug warrior in the US right now? Would you surprised to learn that he's originally from Delaware, that his initials are JB and that he has an address on Pennsylvania Avenue? Would you be surprised to hear that the second-highest drug warrior's initials are KH?

      It will be a happy day with the drug warriors are in the dust bin of history. It is rank revisionism to pretend that it's a R vs D or even a liberal vs conservative issue. They're all totalitarians.

      1. Yep. I expect that if someone woke Joe up and told him about this, his response would be "Off with her head, and where's my ice cream?".

      2. Joe is originally from Pennsylvania, he moved to Delaware when he found out PA was too hard it get into Congress from.

        1. We don't have to claim him, do we?

      3. But it's a total denial of reality to believe Democrats aren't the ones ramping down the drug war today while Republicans fight to keep it going. Look at Idaho trying to amend its constitution to prevent weed legalization. The near universal conservative condemnation of policies like Oregon decriminalizing drugs and other cities starting to refuse to prosecute simple possession cases.

        Yes Biden and Harris are hardcore drug warriors by their records, but they represent the worst of the party now and even they support better drug policies than nearly any Republican.

      4. Ding ding. Winner!

      5. Fair enough, but remember that Trump appointed Sessions as Attorney General after promising to legalize weed on a federal level. And Sessions was as bad as it gets for keeping the feds on the Drug War train. Thank god Trump got mad at him for another reason and replaced him. Biden is a stick in the mud, and is not going to change his mind either. Even though the States have been legalizing for years, the Feds are still into their endless War on Drugs, and federal politicians from either major party seem unlikely to support wide scale legalization of Cannabis, let alone decriminalizing heroin. I don’t see real change on the Federal level coming anytime soon from either political party. You think if DeSantos or Harris becomes the next President that they will chill out on the War on Drugs?

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  5. Under the government's theory, I could be required to have a liquor sales license to hand a beer to a visitor in my home. I'm glad to see a court striking this BS down, but where have they been for the last 60 years?

  6. That 'nominated by Reagan' reference benefits from additional illumination, which is provided by the dissent, from a Federalist Society chapter president and Trump nominee, which illustrates the problems generated by having plenty of authoritarian clingers on the bench to flatter drug warriors.

  7. Damn prosecutors only want to get ahead, they care nothing about anyone but themselves. This prosecutor should be fired and blackmailed from any gov job and lose his/her bar ticket.

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  9. The same penalty holds true for sharing your prescription drugs with someone else. If the other person dies, there is a mandatory 20 year minimum sentence. Prescription drugs claim to be therapeutic, but they can kill. The is no therapeutic claim for illegal drugs, that's why they are illegal. It's preposterous for the court to create a special non criminal class of handing out drugs to those who are deemed addicts of illegal drugs while holding others who use prescription drugs to a different standard.

    1. Yeah and I think Pennsylvania specifically passed a law a few years ago where they can charge drug dealers for the murder of overdosed users if they can prove the drugs were bought from them.

      I wonder if that law played into this case, but the article doesn't mention it either way.

  10. Voting for anyone for powerful positions is almost a no, no. You think you may understand a politicians positions but too often you get this as an outcome. Add Qualified Immunity and we have a real mess. What to do? I don't know.

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