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Predator or Prey: Should People Who Give Drugs to Those Who Ultimately Overdose Be Prosecuted?

Arrested man in handcuffs with hands behind backThe decriminalization of possession of small amounts of certain drugs like marijuana is a legislative change that is sweeping the country, yet it is still a focus of many courts to lay blame when people lose their lives to drug overdose. As a result, more and more courts are focusing on answering the question: Whose fault is it when someone overdoses? Is it the fault of the person who takes the drugs alone, or is the person who makes it possible for the person to get the offending substance to blame as well?

Prescribing Physicians

Most cases have focused on whether or not the physician who prescribed the substance that may have been the cause of overdose is to blame. Failure to monitor a patient closely enough to detect when addiction or drug-seeking behavior may have become an issue certainly warrants concern, as does that wanton prescription of addictive medications with little medical inquiry and no follow-up. But at what point does a patient take responsibility for abuse of a prescription when the physician did everything possible to ensure that the patient had all the information about potential risks, scheduled follow-up appointments as needed, and prescribed the medication according to government regulation?

In most cases, only if negligence can be proven or clear signs of addiction are ignored are doctors implicated in the deaths of patients who overdose on prescription drugs. Though some doctors who were employed by or ran “pill mills,” and clinics that were in the business of making money off prescribing opiate painkillers to any and all who wanted them, were charged criminally, in most cases, the doctor is deemed neither the predator nor the prey, and the patient is held responsible for any abuse of a prescription that leads to overdose.

Drug Dealers

In almost every case, if a drug dealer who sells a large amount of an illegal substance to someone who ultimately overdoses as a result can be identified, the dealer will be charged with second-degree murder. Whether or not the charge results in a conviction will vary from case to case – as will the potential penalty if convicted – but for some people, whether or not a drug dealer is technically liable for the resulting overdose is questionable, even if it can be proven that the dealer provided the drugs that caused the overdose. Some say the dealer is the predator, providing the drugs to a person who was struggling with addiction and must therefore be held accountable for the consequences. But others say that, in many cases, the dealer is struggling with addiction; therefore, the dealer is also a victim and not a predator. It’s an argument that plays out in court on a case-by-case basis with no standard for how best to judge whether or not there is a criminal offender in the overdose death.


In some cases, friends of the deceased may be charged if it can be proven that they were responsible for supplying the overdose victim with the drugs that caused death. Again, the question is whether or not it is fair to charge people with a crime when they may have simply offered a painkiller to assist a friend with a headache or other ailment, not knowing that the person was on other medications that may negatively interact or would take all of the offered pills at once. Certainly, cases like these are a sad demonstration that the understanding of how powerful these medications are is not as widespread as it could be, and that people may be making dangerous choices when they share their medication without realizing it.

In other cases, it may simply be that two people who share an addiction share their drugs, and one person dies of an overdose and the other does not. Does this mean that the person who remains behind is culpable and should go to jail, or does it send a red flag that the person who is still living requires immediate and intensive treatment for addiction?

What Do You Think?

Losing someone to a drug overdose is an intensely brutal experience. It is impossible to say how you would feel about the person who handed your loved one the last dose of a drug of choice unless it happened to you. The first instinct may be that the person behind those drugs must pay for the consequence, and that notion is understandable.

However, the high cost of drug addiction and dependence is made only higher when treatment is tossed aside and imprisonment is chosen in response to a clear addiction problem. Though those who obviously intend to bring harm to someone by giving deadly pills or drugs, and/or those who are negligent in their professions and cause people to lose their lives as a result, are clearly cases where judicial punishment should be meted out, it is less clear as to whether or not those whose poor choices come from a clear drug addiction issue should face the same fate.

What do you think? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts on how the issue of overdose should be handled in the courts, or if the issue should end up in front of a judge at all.

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