Pubdate: Thu, 30 May 2019
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2019 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc


On Wednesday, 24-year-old Emma Semler was sentenced to 21 years in
federal prison for her frienda=80=99s overdose death. The Inquirera=80=99
Jeremy Roebuck and Aubrey Whelan reported that in 2014, Emma met up
with Jennifer Rose Werstler, a friend she had met in rehab. The two
used heroin together in a bathroom of a restaurant in West
Philadelphia. Jennifer overdosed and died. Emma, who brought the drugs
and left the scene, was later charged by federal prosecutors and
convicted of heroin distribution -- which has a mandatory minimum of
20 years if it involves a death.

Emmaa=80=99s story is not rare in Pennsylvania. In an effort to deter dru
use, prosecutors are charging people who provide a drug that causes an
overdose with homicide -- often called "drug-induced homicide" or
"drug delivery resulting in death."

Pennsylvania district attorneys use this charge more than prosecutors
in any state. Three out of the top five counties that use these
charges most often are in Pennsylvania. Lancaster tops the list with
66 charges in 2018 -- a shocking number considering the estimated 107
overdose deaths in the county that year. According to the
Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, charges of drug delivery
in death increased 1,267 percent between 2013 to 2017.

The logic that such charges may prevent overdose deaths is rooted in
the false idea that people who sell or provide drugs and people who
use drugs are two distinct groups -- the former members of a criminal
enterprise, the latter, people who are sick and need treatment. But
people who use drugs often share them, or sell them to support their

The Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University analyzed
more than 200 drug-induced homicide cases. In about half of those
cases, the person charged was a friend, family member, caretaker, or
the partner of the victim -- not a "traditional" dealer.

The irony is that while there is no evidence that drug delivery
resulting in death charges deter drug use, there is reason to believe
that they deter another behavior -- calling 911.

In 2014, Pennsylvania passed a Good Samaritan law that provides
immunity from certain state-level drug charges when a person seeks
help in the event of an overdose. The purpose of the law was to ensure
that people call 911 when someone next to them overdoses, even if they
are in possession of drugs. But according to Leo Beletsky, the faculty
director of Health in Justice and drug policy expert, the Pennsylvania
law is very limited. For starters, like all state law, it doesna=80=99t
offer any protection from federal prosecution. Nor does it provide
protection from a drug delivery resulting in death charge.

The state Good Samaritan law can be amended to protect against
homicide charges; this change could prevent the deaths resulting from
people who are too afraid to call 911. Only a national Good Samaritan
law can prevent a harsh sentence in federal court.

A common refrain from politicians and prosecutors in Pennsylvania is
that addiction is a disease, not a crime. But by charging people in
addiction who shared drugs as murderers, their action tells a
different story.
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