A Rhode Island woman was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder after she sold another woman fentanyl causing her to overdose almost immediately after the transaction. The woman who died thought she was buying heroin. The woman is the first in Rhode Island to be convicted of murder for selling drugs that resulted in another’s death. She is also among only a handful of dealers who have been convicted of this crime across the country. The conviction may be signaling a heightened willingness to more vigorously prosecute dealers for their role in the massive overdose numbers claiming more and more American lives.
Like practically every other state in the country, Rhode Island has seen a steady flow of fentanyl flowing through its borders ever since the drug began to experience a national resurgence. One the particularly dangerous elements of the fentanyl epidemic is that dealers often sell it to addicts without disclosing its true chemical contents. This drug is exponentially more lethal than pure heroin and has a much a greater capacity to cause immediate overdose in first-time users. In 2015, fentanyl deaths across the country rose 73 percent to 9,580, pushing the overall overdose rates and treatment admissions even higher than the record-setting previous year.
The particularly dangerous nature of the fentanyl transaction may have law enforcement and legislators taking a closer look at the level of accountability to which dealers are subject when their supply kills someone. Prosecutors are using laws that come with stiff penalties to target drug dealers and members of the drug supply chain and connect them and the drugs they sell to deadly overdoses. Up until very recently, overdoses were treated as accidents. Now, when law enforcement hears about an overdose, detectives are immediately dispatched to the scene. Paramedics are instructed to treat overdoses as crimes, and coroners are requested to order autopsies and preserve evidence.
This is a far cry from the generations-long culture of prosecuting addicts while letting dealers escape culpability from overdose. While it can be difficult to identify to tie drugs involved in overdose incidents to specific dealers, law enforcement has gotten more sophisticated and their ability to identify certain markers. Officials also rely on cell phone records to determine a timeline leading up to the overdose incident. This commitment to prosecuting dealers comes as the drug problem in American grows increasingly urgent, and threatens more and more citizens in every age group.