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North Carolina Passes 'Death by Distribution' Law

Needle and syringe
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 18, 2019

The opioid crisis has left states -- from law enforcement and emergency responders to social services and even governors -- scrambling for solutions. Some have expanded drug addiction treatment options and the availability of overdose reversal drugs, Narcan or Naloxone. Others have filed civil lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and drug distributors. And some are targeting illicit dealers with tougher and tougher penalties.

One of those, North Carolina, recently passed a bill that allows prosecutors to charge dealers with second-degree murder if the sale results in an overdose death. But will this "death by distribution" law have unintended consequences?

Codes and Intent

Under the North Carolina statute, a person is guilty of death by distribution of certain controlled substances if:

  1. The person unlawfully sells and delivers at least one certain controlled substance to the victim;
  2. The ingestion of the certain controlled substance or substances causes the death of the user;
  3. The person's unlawful sale and delivery of the certain controlled substance or substances was the proximate cause of the victim's death; and
  4. The person did not act with malice.

"[I]t is the intent of the General Assembly to strengthen the laws to act as a greater deterrent to persons who want to illegally distribute opioids and further exacerbate the opioid epidemic," the bill reads. But whether it will serve that purpose, and actually reduce the number of deaths resulting from opioid-related overdoses is an open question.

Criminalizing Help?

One worry is that fewer people will call for help if someone in their vicinity is suffering an overdose, out of fear they might be charged with murder. Not only are people worried they may be charged with murder after a friend's overdose, but that they may also face the death penalty.

As reported by Raleigh's WTVD, North Carolina's death by distribution bill does include a "Good Samaritan" clause. Unfortunately, it doesn't protect people who call for help during an overdose from prosecution. Instead, the clause protects doctors who prescribe an opioid for a legitimate medical purpose and pharmacists.

Twenty other states have already enacted "drug-induced homicide" laws, and three others are currently considering them. And under federal law, providing drugs that cause fatal overdoses can include a penalty 20 years to life in prison.

If you've been charged with an opioid overdose-related crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.

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