At every level of the criminal justice system, from patrol cops to judges, there’s an increased push for a more humane approach to drug use—treating addiction where it exists instead of shoveling drug users into America’s overcrowded jails and prisons.
But you can always count on US prosecutors to find some way to exact inhumanely long prison sentences. In several states, prosecutors have begun to charge people who sell or give someone drugs with murder if that person dies.
The Washington Post highlights one such case: Jarret McClasland and his fiancée Flavia Cardenas did heroin together for her 19th birthday—she OD’d and died. The 27-year-old was charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility for parole.
“They took our son from us,” says his dad. “The sentence they gave him is a living execution … You would not believe the kind of person he is versus the kind of person they portray.”
The Post notes that in at least four states—New Jersey, Tennessee, West Virginia and Louisiana—prosecutors are routinely charging people who supply drugs with homicide. In other states, lawmakers have introduced legislation classifying overdose deaths as murders.
“It’s not different than a person who shoots somebody with a gun,” said US attorney David Hickton.
Yeah, ok. In addition to illustrating the preternatural ability of the US justice system to deflect reform, the efforts rely on several clichés and misconceptions about people who use drugs and people who sell them. As the cultural figure of “addict” has metamorphosed from urban person of color to suburban straight-A cheerleader—your daughter!—it’s only natural for a new threat to emerge, which can naturally only be met with an aggressive crackdown. What better way to maintain the equilibrium of a racist drug war than pinning OD deaths on the (ideally urban) drug dealer?
Of the five anecdotal cases highlighted in the Washington Post report, in four the overdose victim was female, while the person charged was male. Although in these particular cases, the people charged were boyfriends and husbands, the gender breakdown doesn’t seem all that surprising—it resonates with the notion of women led astray by bad men. It’s a common trope in drug war history, going back at least to the image of 19th-century Chinese immigrant luring white women to their opium sex dens, where God-only-knows what kind of nation-weakening miscegenation took place.
The prosecutions are reliant on the myth that there’s a clear-cut difference between users and dealers—a black-and-white distinction that rarely occurs in real life.
“A lot of people who deal drugs are addicts, even though they are caught selling or trafficking,” Inimai Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice told the Post, “If you go after the person who sold to the person who wound up dying, you’re not really going after the people who are responsible for the drug trade–the kingpins.” Going after drug cartels is certainly more work than demonizing someone’s boyfriend as a heartless dealer.
These prosecutions also mark the kind of policy hypocrisy that can only come from a drug panic. Alcohol-related deaths—ranging from drunk driving accidents to overdoses to death following long-term illness—greatly outstrip those related to opioids. And while in most states, bartenders can face civil and criminal charges for serving an inebriated person, when’s the last time a bartender was charged with murder after serving a drink that contributed to an alcohol-poisoning fatality?
Obviously, it’s a good thing that prosecutors aren’t targeting bartenders. But horrific cases like the McClasland one shouldn’t be happening either.