A GOP Congressman Wants to 'Ensure Lives Are Protected'--By Expanding the Death Penalty for Drugs.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) has introduced the Help Ensure Lives Are Protected Act of 2016, which would subject drug dealers who sell heroin laced with fentanyl to death or life imprisonment if “death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance.”


In a way, Reed’s move represents the natural progression of the widespread idea that heroin dealers should be primarily scapegoated for heroin-related deaths—as The Influence has covered. But here are some of the reasons it’s not a great idea:

1. Although the death penalty has never been proven to act as a deterrent to committing crimes, what enhanced penalties would likely do is deter people from calling for help if someone is overdosing. As the Huffington Post points out, that’s in stark opposition to Good Samaritan laws, which remove criminal penalties if someone reports an overdose.

2. Most drug “dealers” are not El Chapo. Many people who sell drugs are from poor communities, and do it just to try to make ends meet or to feed their own habits.

Reed has said that the bill would target, ” … the worst of the worst… these are not the users.” To be fair, the bill doess tate that the law would apply in cases where 100 grams or more of heroin has been mixed with fentanyl—that’s a significant amount of heroin, and way more than the average person who uses the drug is likely to have. But users often combine resources to buy drugs in bulk. Sorting out who’s a “big-time dealer” versus somebody just cooperating with their heroin-using family or friends would be pretty complicated—and in the course of the War on Drugs, prosecutors have not had a great record of self-restraint.

Keep in mind that over 97 percent of cases don’t go to trial because they’re pled out. The likely result of enhanced sentencing would be to add another weapon in a prosecutors’ kit for pressuring people into accepting harsh plea bargains: 30 years verses the death penalty is a pretty persuasive argument.

3. The whole reason we have failed to incarcerate our way out of illegal drug use is that illicit markets exist for a reason and are incredibly resilient. Locking up one guy for life (or killing him twenty years from now) would just open up the market for someone else.

4. The bill explicitly names fentanyl. So what happens if a new, deadlier substance enters the black market? Do we rush to expand the death penalty again? Fentanyl is very often mixed into street heroin—one recent small-scale study found 90 percent of samples contained it—but accurately determining at which point in the supply chain it was mixed in could also be difficult.

Perhaps Reed is really trying to help. But there are better ways to prevent overdose deaths than enhanced penalties—and the death penalty is inhumane in any circumstance. Instead, how about pushing for supervised injection facilities, or for increased training and supply of naloxone?

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