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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/NewscomBill 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.

Photo Credit: Bill Graveland/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    We're going to need this if marijuana is legalized. How else will we keep the nation's criminal justice industry from collapsing? There must be balance.

  • General_Tso||

    If a gas station fills up my car with kerosene and ruins the engine, they should be held liable for the damages.

    If a drug dealer misrepresents the product they're selling, shouldn't they be held liable?

    Note: I'm for legalizing everything and personal responsibility.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I agree mostly, but the better analogy is more fine-tuned. Who put the kerosene in the station's tanks or mislabeled the pumps? Probably the tanker driver connected the hoses wrongly by mistake, or the refinery connected the hoses wrongly.

    Someone cut the heroin with fentanyl -- who? Did that person know it? Who did they get the heroin and fentanyl from? Did they know the strength? Did they exaggerate when they sold it?

    Murder is a pretty string word. Unless a dealer knew what was he was doing and didn't care, manslaughter seems more reasonable. Same with the kerosene -- unless someone at the gas station or refinery intentionally mislabeled things, or the tanker driver intentionally filled the wrong tanks, it's just a mistake worthy of insurance payouts, not a criminal matter.

  • LarryA||

    When I buy something at the supermarket, because the purchase is legal I can be reasonably sure the container holds exactly what the labeling says it does. The market's reputation depends on me making safe, pleasing purchases, and I can call on the civil or criminal law to handle any problems.
    If there is a mistake, as there was recently at our market, they can issue a recall and place an advertisement in local media to advertise the problem. The store, with a couple of phone calls or consulting computerized inventories, can trace the product all the way back to the source of the raw ingredients.

    On a black market every cautionary step above is criminalized. Keep a computer inventory and there's a risk it will be used to prosecute everybody. So all the safeguards get short-circuited. Most likely, the drug dealer had no clue exactly what he was selling, since no one in the marketing chain keeps such records.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Yeah, in the drug scene near my home, it is common for dealers to slip drugs in someone's food if they want to teach him a lesson or get rid of him.

  • Magnitogorsk||

    This is a dumb law. Legalize all drugs.

    But if someone claims to be selling you Drug A but knowingly and secretly sells you a much more dangerous Drug B which kills you, surely the seller has some liability.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    There is something less than knowingly and secretly, and the primary reason this law is so stupid is because the State has made it impossible to know what's in the heroin (or the filler). You know about that government-poisoned alcohol during Prohibition? It was intentionally secretly poisoned by the government. It's enough to make you wonder if the government is secretly poisoning heroin. It would go right along with the fast and furious government gun running.

  • Paloma||

    I wouldn't doubt it.

  • Zeb||

    Charge the DEA with murder.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Rhode Island has drug dealers? Plural? I wouldn't think that tiny market could support a single dealer, let alone multiple dealers.

  • General_Tso||

    Hey now, it's the biggest little state in the union! (Tourism ad from the early 80s)

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Maybe drug dens are like synagogues. Every town needs the one you go to and the one you won't step foot in.

  • Rich||

    Treating them as the same doesn't do anything to help anyone.

    Ahem. What about helping the law firm of "Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe"?

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Wrong!

    Looks like Robby is training this intern.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Speaking of murder, just when you thought we were done with fake Russian news.

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