It’s time to stop blaming the victims of drug overdose

Amy Winehouse

I’ve always winced when I’ve seen late night comedians and watercooler gossips poke their all-too-easy fun at very young and very gifted Amy Winehouse. To so many, her increasingly skeletal frame and bizarre behavior were public carnival. To those of us who have watched the disease of drug addiction take its toll on the people we love, there was no entertainment in what we saw, and I can guarantee you with 100 percent certainty that Amy Winehouse’s mother and father didn’t get the jokes.

And now she’s gone.She was only 27 years old.

When I heard the news of Amy Winehouse’s death on Saturday, my heart dropped and I wept. I might not have known Amy personally, but sadly, I know very, very personally how her mother and father have been hurting in the days since they got the phone call that every parent of a young addict dreads.

No cause of death has yet been given publicly for Amy’s death, but the odds are pretty good that she died of an overdose or some other complication of her disease. We likely won’t know for days or weeks what happened, but if it turns out that it was an overdose of illegal drugs that took Amy Winehouse’s life, I hope that the media will make note of the fact that while Amy Winehouse may have been a drug addict, it was a drug dealer who killed her. What I am saying is this: if Amy Winehouse died of an overdose of illegally distributed drugs, there is a criminal walking free today who actively preyed on and profited from the vulnerability that her addiction created for her. That drug dealer or dealers should be identified, arrested and held criminally liable for distributing the drugs involved in her overdose before he or she kills someone else’s beloved child.

Overdoses of illegal drugs are almost always deemed “accidental” by authorities, when in fact, there is really nothing accidental about them. It’s not an “accident” when a drug dealer knowingly targets someone whom he or she knows to be an addict as a customer, and then commits a felony in distributing drugs to that vulnerable customer. The fact that overdose victims might have asked for the drugs that killed them, and even paid money for them does not obviate the criminal liability of the drug dealers who distribute to them.

If Amy Winehouse had suffered from schizophrenia that created delusional thinking, and had as a direct result of her specific mental illness offered someone a great deal of money to provide a loaded gun to her and specifically show her how to put it in her mouth and pull the trigger, no one would excuse the shooter by saying, “well, she asked for him to do it, so she deserved what she got.” No, instead we would all be appalled that someone would be cruel enough to agree to take money from someone he knew very well to be mentally ill in exchange for providing her with the necessary materials and information to kill herself or someone else, something that he knew or should have known was likely to happen. Yet, when it comes to drug dealers who actively target, prey on, and profit from individuals struggling in the grip addiction we too often give these dangerous criminals a free pass, placing all the blame on the dead overdose victim herself.

Our cultural attitudes toward overdose deaths caused by the illegal distribution of drugs – prescription or illicit – absolutely must change. Both in Great Britain and here in the United States, it is not overstating the case to say that we are losing a generation to a specific type of profit-driven criminal activity that clearly and directly targets its victims. Yet, far too often, law enforcement, prosecutors, medical examiners and public health officials still refer to deaths resulting from the illegal distribution of drugs as “unintentional,” or “accidental.”

Think of it this way – most drunk drivers who end up killing someone certainly never intended to hurt anyone when they got behind the wheel while impaired, much less kill anybody. But if a drunk driver does kill someone as the direct result of his or her criminal behavior, we don’t write this off as a tragic “accident.”  Instead, we arrest, charge, and prosecute drunk drivers who kill, even if in their own minds, the death they caused was unintentional and accidental.

In another example, perhaps a woman has chosen to return again and again to a husband who beats her badly. Each time she leaves, she packs up her children and goes to spend a few days at a local domestic violence shelter, where trained counselors work as hard as they can to help her break free of this obviously high-risk relationship. Her family reaches out repeatedly, begging her to break away from a man everyone but the victim herself can see is likely to ultimately kill her. But no matter what anyone tells her, she always gives him another chance. This cycle goes on for several years, until one day, just as everyone told her would happen if she stayed with him, the husband beats her to death.

In this scenario, do we blame the woman for her own death given that she repeatedly returned to the abuser, even when she was offered all the help she needed to break free? Does the fact that she willingly chose to be part of a relationship where the odds of her ending up dead were obviously high mean that she is not the victim of criminal homicide? Of course not. Her case will be and should be treated as a murder, and the man who beat her to death will be arrested and prosecuted. No one will suggest that the victim is to blame for her own death.

In the case of both drunk driving and domestic violence, it wasn’t so very long ago that our societal views were quite different than they are today. Drunk driving was largely ignored by law enforcement agencies, and cases in which an impaired driver hurt or killed someone were almost never prosecuted. Domestic violence victims were also mostly ignored by local enforcement and prosecutors, and men who beat their wives were rarely  arrested or charged.

It took dedicated, outspoken activism to change the cultural conversation around both of these issues, and to insist that law enforcement leaders and prosecutors stop looking the other way when these two particular categories of criminal activity resulted in someone’s death.  And now it’s time for those of us who have lost someone we love to drug overdose – and that’s A LOT of us – to get past our shame, be willing to take the public heat, step up, speak out, and strongly advocate on behalf of these voiceless, marginalized crime victims in the same way that early drunk driving and domestic violence activists spoke out.

If it’s determined that the distribution of illegal drugs played a role in Amy Winehouse’s death, then her death was not a mere tragic accident. It wasn’t unintentional. Her drug dealer did not “accidentally” take her money in exchange for drugs, and he (or she) certainly intended for Amy to use the drugs he provided to her – again and again and again.  If it’s determined that Amy Winehouse’s death over the weekend was not due to drug overdose, that still leaves approximately 300 Americans and 15 citizens of the UK who DID die of drug overdose during that same 72 hour period.

It’s time to stop assuming that all deaths resulting from what we’ve already clearly designated to be a criminal activity – illegal, profit driven distribution of drugs –  are mere accidents in which the dead victim is primarily to blame.  And it’s time to stop treating those who die as a result of drug overdose as less worthy of the time, attention and interest that law enforcement and prosecutors give to victims of other types of homicide. When drug dealers kill someone – even if that someone was a drug addict – they must be held accountable.

My thoughts and prayers are with the Winehouse family this week. I hope that yours are as well.

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