If They Die of an Overdose, Drug Users Have a Last Request
Thousands of drug users across the country signed their names to a sort of last will and testament, requesting that prosecutors not file homicide charges against their loved ones.
Louise Vincent received a frantic email late one night in July: “Any progress on Adam? They’re trying to get him on a murder charge for his friend’s overdose death.”
Adam is a young man in West Virginia who purchased heroin for himself and a friend. They used together. Adam woke up. His friend didn’t. Now authorities hold Adam responsible for his friend’s death.
Vincent receives emails like this one with increasing frequency from families and friends of drug users who police claim are drug dealers. She is director of the Urban Survivors Union, a group of drug users advocating for drug policy reform. “People email asking, ‘What can I do? Do we have access to attorneys? Do you have a legal aid fund?’”
The crime with which Adam is charged is drug-induced homicide. Across the country, nearly 400 people addicted to drugs faced similar indictments in 2017. (Depending on the state, it could be a generic manslaughter or felony-murder charge.) Until recently, these laws were generally used only in cases involving high-level dealers and organized crime. But law enforcement attitudes have changed.
An estimated 72,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from less than 15,000 two decades earlier. Desperate to respond, both federal and state governments are pursuing policies that repeat widely known failures of a tough-on-crime approach. Charging a deceased drug user’s alleged supplier with homicide is an increasingly popular option among prosecutors. Advocates for drug policy reform argue it represents the greatest intensification of the war on drugs that America has experienced in a generation.
All of this swirled in Vincent’s head as she lay in bed at her home in Greensboro, North Carolina, talking with her partner one recent evening.
“What if I died of an overdose?” she asked him. “I don’t want you to go to jail. I don’t want anybody to go to jail. What can we do?”
Drug users have had their own response to the epidemic of overdose deaths. They’re talking in closed Facebook groups, holding online workshops, and connecting on conference calls to strategize how best to advocate for harm-reduction measures, such as needle exchanges, and how to establish America’s first supervised-injection facility.
On one such call, Vincent took her question—What can we do?—to Jess Tilley, founder of the New England User’s Union. Together, they came up with one possibility, and it will happen on Aug. 31.
On that date, thousands of drug users will sign their names to a sort of last will and testament, requesting that should they lose their lives to an overdose, authorities refrain from destroying a second life with a lengthy prison term.