In June, a controversial bill was signed into law in Rhode Island that allows a drug dealer to be given a life sentence if their clients overdose. The new law known as Kristen’s Law was named after 29-year-old Kristen Coutu, who died in 2014 from heroin laced with fentanyl. Despite the law’s seemingly good intentions, many public health officials argue that it could criminalize addicted users while simultaneously failing to combat the opioid crisis, an argument supported by reporting from The Appeal’s Abdullah Shihipar and Meghan Peterson.
There are multiple concerns over Kristen’s Law, which were expressed in a June 13 letter from opponents to Gov. Gina Raimondo before she signed it into law. First, charging a dealer with a homicide means the dealer had intent to kill. However, in a 2017 study of illicit opioid users in Rhode Island in the International Journal of Drug Policy, many of them said they didn’t prefer fentanyl. Many of the users also couldn’t identify fentanyl if it was in their drugs.
Another concern is that the law goes after “drug dealers,” a term that is expansively defined. Due to this broad definition, some fear it could include a person who simply shares drugs with a friend. The opponents’ letter to Raimondo said:
The bill’s language does not prevent the prosecution of ‘small time’ dealers who trade or sell drugs, and who may themselves struggle with substance use disorder, or those who provide drugs to a friend for a few dollars or in exchange for a bed for the night. It is these individuals, not drug kingpins, who are most likely to get charged under this law, and who will almost certainly be forced to plead rather than risk facing the harsh punishment this bill metes out.
To add to the list of concerns, this law will have the greatest impact on minorities, creating an even worse racial disparity in the state. According to the ACLU of Rhode Island, the state’s black residents are “three times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than whites.”
Finally, health officials fear the impact on how many people will call 911 when they witness an overdose. A 2002 survey published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases revealed that 75 percent of people who witnessed an overdose said concerns about police involvement delayed their 911 call. In response, the Rhode Island Senate added in a Good Samaritan clause that’s supposed to protect dealers or anyone who calls to report the overdose, and essentially help the victim. However, several lawmakers expressed concern that the “mere existence of the law” will cause other people involved in the overdose to flee the scene without calling 911 for fear of being charged with a homicide.
Democratic House Speaker for the Rhode Island House of Representatives Nicholas Mattiello sponsored the bill that faced backlash from health officials and his colleagues. Rep. Moira Walsh (D-Providence), who said her brother is a heroin addict, argued, “This will save not lives, it will ruin them.” She went on to say, “This is the second bill offered by the Attorney General, whose solution to this crisis seems to be to incarcerate all of those affected by it.” At the end of her argument she told her brother, “No matter what the final vote tally is, I love you and you are not a murderer.” Rep. Michael Chippendale (R-Foster) voiced similar fears to Walsh’s: “My fear is we’re going to kill more people with this bill,” he said.
Rhode Island, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Pennsylvania have all passed drug-induced homicide laws.