In July 2023, Community Education Group and community advocates working on harm reduction policy in North Carolina shared these questions with the NC Senate Health Committee.
Questions for legislators to ask about HB258:
- When North Carolina passed the Death by Distribution law four years ago, it was framed as a way to go after high-level traffickers, and lawmakers specifically said they didn’t want to go after friends or family members of those who died from an accidental overdose.. This new bill would broaden the law so that people who do not sell drugs, but who simply share drugs that result in death, can be charged with the crime. This will inevitably sweep up friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, siblings and other people who are using drugs together. It will result in heartbreak on top of heartbreak. Why has this change strayed so far from what lawmakers said just four years ago?
- This bill reverts to the old drug war playbook. We’ve said for years that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.” Punitive approaches haven’t worked to reduce drug use or negative health consequences for the past 50 years. What makes you think this time will be different?
- There is a cycle where the public becomes alarmed about new drugs and policy makers increase penalties. This happened in the 80s with crack cocaine. But we must remain clear-headed when making policy decisions and follow the evidence of what works. I have seen no evidence to show that drug-induced homicide (death by distribution) charges decrease overdose or result in less drugs in communities. Have you found empirical evidence supporting this idea?
- We do have evidence that public health approaches work to address drug use and reduce deaths. Punitive approaches undermine this by actually making people more afraid to seek help. There is research showing that drug-induced homicide laws make people more hesitant to call 911 in overdose emergencies. Won’t this bill make people less likely to call for help?
- There seems to be the feeling that even if death by distribution laws do not result in lower overdose deaths, that there is still the need to “send a message” and that there is not a real downside to this approach. But emerging evidence is showing that criminalization can actually undermine public health goals. There is a new study that was just published in the American Journal of Public Health showing that drug seizures result in increased overdoses in the surrounding area in the days and weeks following that seizure. They called it the “drug bust paradox.” And right here in North Carolina, research has supported the notion that drug-induced homicide arrests can result in riskier drug use. As we rush to pass these laws because it seems like the right thing to do, wouldn’t it be better to study the impact that our current death by distribution law has had, to see the impact it’s having before we expand the practice?
- We hear from people who use drugs and advocates that some key changes are needed to our Good Samaritan law in order to ensure that people are willing to call for help. One change is that all drugs should be covered, which this bill does do. But they have pointed out other changes that North Carolina needs to make: We need to join 30 other states that provide immunity for not just prosecution but also arrest. This is a feature of Good Samaritan laws that are effective in reducing overdose deaths. Florida and Virginia recently amended their laws to include this common-sense provision. Another change is that we need to protect others who provide aid at the scene – not just the caller and victim. And we know that the Death by Distribution law prevents people from calling. In an overdose emergency, saving a life should be the number one priority. If you were a parent of someone overdosing, would you want anything to stand in the way of a call for help? Would it be more important to you that your child survive or that someone is punished for their death? Why are the Good Samaritan provisions in this bill so limited?