A new state law that aims to strengthen penalties for illegal drug distribution will take effect this month. While the Republican-sponsored law offers harsher penalties, substance use experts, advocates, and health care professionals are raising concern over its harmful impact.
The law designates that anyone who provides certain drugs, including fentanyl, to a person who dies after taking them may be prosecuted for second-degree murder — whether they received money for the drugs or shared them freely.
According to N.C. Health News, substance use experts around the state have said that this approach to a public health crisis will likely cost more lives.
“This law feels like death by 1,000 paper cuts, because they’re all minor changes — all of which are harmful and none of which we have any reason to believe actually reduces the harms of the drug supply in our community,” Jennifer Carroll, a substance use researcher and assistant professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University, told N.C. Health News.
A 2017 study, by the Drug Policy Alliance, analyzed the impact of laws aimed at prosecuting drug suppliers for drug deaths. Data from states such as North Carolina, which have passed such laws — indicated that, despite an increase in prosecutions, overdose deaths significantly increased.
“Arrest and incarcerate policies” are widely recognized as “ineffective at reducing drug use, causing high rates of relapse, recidivism and re-incarceration,” the researchers of the study wrote.
Experts warn that such laws can exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, with Black and Brown communities being targeted. According to the report, Black and Brown communities are more likely to be “targeted both as friends and family of people who died, but, more ominously, as the demonized ‘pushers,’ ‘dealers,’ and ‘peddlers’ — all racially coded language.”
“Elected officials unfamiliar with, or resistant to, harm reduction, prevention, and
treatment interventions are introducing punitive, counter-productive legislative measures in a misguided effort to reduce overdose fatalities,” the authors continued. “Though their rhetoric may be compassionate, their policies are anything but. They are adopting a law and order approach to solve a public health crisis, with devastating consequences”.
In addition, advocates have flagged that with second degree murder charges on the line, people using drugs will be hesitant to call for help or emergency services if someone they know overdoses.
“Funds desperately needed to bolster public health in vulnerable, and often overlooked, communities are instead funneled to outdated and fruitless tactics that do nothing to save lives,” the North Carolina Survivors Union, a community-led harm reduction organization, wrote in a statement.
Communities and advocates are calling for lawmakers to invest in public health solutions that have been shown to reduce overdose deaths.
“It is time for lawmakers to recognize the failings of the Drug War and come to the realization that we cannot punish our way out of the overdose crisis,” the Urban Survivors Union, wrote in a statement.
“Instead, we must prioritize a community-informed, culturally competent and evidence-based approach to finally address this public health crisis,” the Union added. “That means investing in accessible, humane drug treatment, funding harm reduction strategies and passing a stronger Good Samaritan Law that aligns with the problems facing North Carolinians today”.