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How Responsible Is the Drug Dealer for the Actions of the Drug User?

  1. Basoodler
    The death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose has triggered an interesting debate as to whether the individuals who sold Mr. Hoffman the drugs should be criminally liable for his death. Presently, however, New York State has no crime on its books that specifically addresses this issue. Should an overzealous district attorney seek to explore any potential crimes, the charges would most likely have to fit into some aspect of the homicide statutes. Given that this is clearly not an intentional act, the DA would have argue that the drug dealers acted recklessly or grossly negligent when they sold the drugs that were the source of the overdose. Needless to say, this is a very tall order for any prosecutor.

    What is confusing the matter is the fact that the NYPD, no doubt as a result of the high profile nature of the case, arrested 4 individuals that they claim sold heroin to Mr. Hoffman. Putting aside the idea that the NYPD routinely come across OD cases and are nowhere near as interested in finding the drug sellers who actually supplied the drugs to the OD victim (we'll save that discussion for another Sullivan Brill blog post), one is left to believe that the DA is considering charging these alleged drug sellers with being responsible for Mr. Hoffman's death. Again, New York State Penal Law does not address this scenario in its drug statutes so the DA would need to look elsewhere.

    Now, although New York does not specifically criminalize a drug seller's conduct if the drugs buyer/user ODs as a result of the drugs sold, United States Code -- the federal criminal statutes -- address this issue in its sentencing laws specifically. Under the penalty enhancement provision of the Controlled Substances Act in 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(c), a defendant is subjected to a 20 year mandatory minimum sentence when he unlawfully distributes a Schedule I or II drug and death or serious bodily injury results from the use of that substance. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court recently rendered a decision in U.S. v. Burrage (No. 12-7515) in which Justice Scalia discusses, in detail, what the phrase from the use of actually means.

    In Burrage, Joshua Banka, a long time drug user died on April 14, 2010, following an extended drug binge. During that binge, the Mr. Banka used marijuana in the morning of the 14th followed by the crushing, cooking and injecting of oxycodone pills. Later in the day, he met with the defendant, Mr. Burrage and purchase one gram of heroin which he injected throughout the night and into the morning of the 15th. In the early morning hours of the 15th, Mr. Banka's girlfriend found him dead in the bathroom. A search of his Mr. Banka's home uncovered several syringes, over a half a gram of heroin, and various prescription drugs and tablets.

    Mr. Burrage was charged with two counts of distributing heroin in violation of §841(a)(1) and the government provided notice that it would seek the "death results" enhancement under §841(b)(1)(c), exposing Mr. Burrage to a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence. At trial, the government successfully convinced a jury that because the drugs distributed by the defendant need only contribute to an aggregate force that lead to death. The jury agreed with the government and Mr. Burrage was sentenced in line with this mandatory minimum sentence.

    Mr. Burrage exhausted his appellate rights -- unsuccessfully -- and ultimately filed a Writ of Certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, which was granted. The question the Supreme Court set out to answer whether a defendant can be convicted under the "death results" provision of §841 when the use of the controlled substance was a contributing cause of the death. Justice Scalia answered the question in the negative and reversed the conviction holding that a defendant cannot be held liable for the penalty enhancement (20 year mandatory minimum) unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury. In other words, unless a jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the drug user would have lived but for his heroin use, the sentencing enhancement is not applicable. In a nutshell, the drug distributed by the defendant must be an independently sufficient cause of the victim's death for a defendant to be liable under the sentencing enhancement provision.

    Whether or not a seller should ever be responsible for the user's death is a interesting question. Surely if a seller knows of a "beat" or tainted product, the case could be a bit easier for a prosecutor. But in viewing both arguments, I tend to lean towards the underlying concept we are all personally responsible for our actions and that a user's decision to use, which might tragically lead to an overdose, should not in any way be attributed to, or worsen the conduct, of the drug seller.



  1. Poppi
    Interesting article, thanks for posting it! I think this piece raises points that might be divisive, and I look forward to hearing people chime in with their opinions.

    My mother and I have had this conversation before, as she (along with many folks in her age and demographic) adamantly blames drug dealers for creating and maintaining addiction in rather "innocent" people who somehow become ensnared in a drug dealer's deadly trap. She is still of the mind that there are countless drug dealers selling to schoolchildren and sticking their wares in Halloween candy. You get the idea.

    I, on the other hand, completely disagree. Maybe it's because I'm an addict and I see the scene so much differently than my mother, but I think drug dealers are supplying a product with high demand. I don't blame the dealer if I OD on his shit, even if he didn't warn me that it was fire. That's the risk I take every single time I use a substance that isn't tightly controlled by a pharmacy, and even then, you never know.

    I take full responsibility for seeking out drugs; no one laid them in front of me and said, "Pick, kid!" I wasn't accosted in the playground with syringes full of primo dope, I had to go find that, and find it I did. I've certainly never been pressured to do drugs by a dealer, much less by my friends--I was way ahead of them where dope was concerned, and I bet a lot of folks here were too.

    So, the long and short of it is, I don't think a drug dealer should be responsible for a user's actions, and I find it laughable (in a terrible way) that it is even possible to catch a homicide charge for supplying the product everyone wants. I make one notable exception to my stance, however, and that is when dealers knowingly give a hot-shot to someone knowing full well they'll OD. Of course, the reason a dealer would do this surely is homicidal, and then the punishment fits the crime.

    What do you guys think?
  2. Tulio_Hermil
    Um, im not sure if im not mixing up laws from somewhere else, but hipsters could push to ammend the "criminal code" of NY (i think it was called NYPL) and include "drug sale" in the list of "inherently dangerous felonies" that trigger the "felony murder" offense, that would surely result in a fucking harsh sentence if the autopsy shows causal nexus between the drugs bought and the death (of course that the modification would not apply retroactively to this case....)
    In my opinion it would be kind of sloppy, random and "un-systematic" mod, but well, thats what common-law jurisictions are all about! random, sloppy, weird rules! even when they try to codify (they mess up even worse)!

  3. hoopidiupi
    For the second time today, I find that my views are the same as those stated by Poppi, above.
  4. Diverboone
    Would we blame the car salesman if some on purchased a car then drove it recklessly, to the point of a fatal crash? Not unless it could be proven that the car salesman knew the car was defective and not road worthy.

    Our society does not like to take responsibility for their actions, it's much easier to place the blame elsewhere. This has been ingrained by the media and many parents. The drug dealers are the scum of society.

    What happens when the drug dealer is the doctor? Someone takes more medication than prescribed, then proceeds to crash. Would the public hold the doctor responsible? Probably not, a prescribed drug or the car either would most likely agree that the person acted irresponsible and that's what lead to their death. This leads to the concept that is common, illegal drugs can never be consumed responsible.

    I believe it would be difficult to prove without a doubt that a XXX drug was solely responsible in a situation similar to this. On the other hand, in a court where the burden of proof is much less, such as "preponderance of proof". Yes in civil court there is a much more likely hood a dealer could be held responsible. I know there has been multiple cases where alcohol was provide or sold to, where the provider or sell was held responsible for the later action of the receiver in civil court.

    I personally believe in, "all things in moderation", it's not the drugs fault nor the dealers fault for the irresponsibility of the user.
  5. nitewalker
    Aside from intentionally selling a known toxic substance (hotshot), or selling to an obviously suicidal or incoherent individual, it really falls in the common sense category. If someone buys a car & comes to pick it up obviously intoxicated, it would be reckless for the seller to hand over the keys to such an individual. However, if an otherwise sober and (relatively) apparently competent person picks up a vehicle from the seller & runs it into the next telephone pole, how is the seller liable for such an action?

    Instead of looking for a scapegoat, how about some personal accountability?
  6. Basoodler
    I think that in extremely unethical cases drug dealers are somewhat liable .. I mean selling to children or in cases where the user is mentally Ill .. ---->http://www.drugs-forum.com/forum/showthread.php?t=237912

    Besides stuff like that , I've seen dealers cut lines in front of people fresh out of rehab.. Which would intact indicate certain amount of responsibility to the asshole dealer
  7. Nosferatus
    Maybe dealers will try to pressure rich, non-users into buying their stuff, I've never had enough money to find out. All I know is that I was never forced to buy or use drugs by anyone, I had to expend considerable effort to finding them generally, it seems every dealer says their stuff is the best, regardless of how true that is, and, in the end, as an adult human who is intelligent enough to function, you are responsible for your own actions, dealers do not intend to kill their customers, dead people don't buy more stuff.
  8. I_MISS_160s

    These are 2 paragraphs that portray my thoughts on this subject perfectly. There is always going to be Heroin dealers. As long as they are not selling a tainted product then it is up to the drug user to execute responsible potency practices before going any further.


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  9. mystix36
    I would say the drug dealer isn't responsible for someone else's death or overdose.... unless there's some extenuating circumstances. Such as: They knowingly sell a substance that's deliberately been made to be toxic. Or they lie about the substance they are selling. Like say someone wants to buy some cocaine... and the dealer tells the person it's coke... when it's really heroin or something else. Or they lie about the dose- saying something is much weaker than it really is. Otherwise... no one forced that other person to buy drugs. Would someone be allowed to sue jack daniels.... because they became an alcoholic?
  10. BitterSweet
    First, I just want to say how ridiculous penalties are for drug related crimes - drug smuggling is at least decades of jail time, and in the case cited in the news article, the dealer was first convicted of the minimum 20 year sentence. If we are going to even consider drug dealers as being liable for the death of buyers, at least give sentences that make sense and are proportionate to the "crime". Maybe such an exaggerated sentence is due to society's inherent prejudice about drugs; morals mixing with the law. I can't believe how a jury of 12 found that dealer guilty. Off topic, but if a jury finds that someone is guilty of whatever he or she is being accused of, but thinks that the sentence the defendant will receive is not justified, what do they do? Or it's basically that it is up to the law to decide the sentences, the jury only decides whether someone is innocent or guilty, and should not let the potential sentence influence their decision?

    Back to the main point, when selling drugs to someone who by their own will seek them out for the purpose of drugs, the dealer doesn't know if it will just be used by the person or will later be divided out, the dealer doesn't know how many days the user plans to use it for, or if the drugs are for the buyer at all. I'm sure the dealer in the case of Hoffman probably knew it was for him, but no one can say for sure how much the dealer did or did not know; how long had Hoffman been going to this dealer? If it was often and for a long time, the dealer could probably figure out the severity of his addiction at least by how often he bought and how much was bought, but if that were the case, it would seem that Hoffman had bought that amount many times before and was still alive - if it was his first time ever buying heroin, maybe one could argue there is some minimal form of negligence by selling an amount likely to be lethal if taken more than the user can take, but who the user himself has no prior experiences with the drug to know how to responsibly use it.

    There are so many cases of death resulting from OD; I have never heard of their dealers being sought out for such an extreme charge. That is probably the case because it is not worthwhile to society to expend resources on prosecuting every dealer who has had a buyer die from OD - resources such as the cost and time of finding these individuals, cost and time of prosecuting them in court, and the cost of housing more and more prisoners for decades. Deaths from ODs are going to happen regardless if there is one less dealer on the streets. It is the user's fault and no one elses, there are obviously a shit ton of people who buy drugs and don't die from OD.

    Whether the drugs come from the street or from a doctor/pharmacy, drugs are drugs, and prescription drugs can be just as lethal when taken in high amounts. The only thing I would hold against dealers is the purity and contents of the drug they are selling. I have heard of a batch of crack in a nearby city that had rat poison in it and at least one person died from it. I don't see that dealers want to go and kill their customers with severely toxic drug formulations, who knows who even put such an ingredient in the crack in the first place. But that is the risk a buyer of street drugs takes when choosing to buy a drug with unknown ingredients and unknown source - who you choose to trust and buy from, a consistent and reliable source, or some new person you know nothing about.
  11. whatstheproblem
    Who would we punish then for alcohol related deaths. The makers or the people who started the company. Same with tobacco. ultimately its the person taking the substances. they have chosen, accept it or not, the road their on.

    also, all kinds of shit can kill us out there, not just drugs
  12. I_MISS_160s

    Wow what an amazing point. How many times has Mr. Beam or Mr. Walker been charged with negligent homicide. Once in while you may hear of a bar or bar tender but not too often.

    Good Call WTP


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  13. whatstheproblem
    I dont need my connect to give me some kind of life therapy, that's not his position or call to make. that's not their job either. your job is to give me the product that im paying you for. if im on some kind of run, who cares. thats what happens in this world. if they want to starting dulling out that kind of talk or start having emotions like that, their in the wrong line of work. part of my pay is for you to be emotionless. if i had some connect using discreation or telling me i need to slow down or whatever, i would take my business elsewhere. fuck you, i can turn on Dr. Phil if i wanna hear some bullshit like that

    now if you got some asshole out there lacing his shit with the intention of harming people, thats different but i would still like to see street justice there more than the pigs get involved.
  14. CohibaKid
    I am definitely on the side of responsibility for one’s addiction. I have had dealers cut me off when I was out of control.

    Phillip Seymour Hoffman was a long term addict, and knew perfectly well the dangers of his addiction, and his relapse situation made it even more dangerous.

    The tolerance we build up as users in the throes of our usage, is a culmination of long term absorption of any given substance by our bodies.

    Although heroin was never my drug of choice, I know that relapsing and trying to start where you left off is dangerous and lethal.

    From what I understand, he bought a large supply as he probably had in the past, so the dealer wouldn't necessarily be alarmed or expecting Phillip not know, the consequences of a large buy.

    Now as far as a dealer that shows up on your doorstep the day you walk out of rehab, that may be predatory and unscrupulous, but we do have the option to say no.

    I have had this happen to me personally and I was just not ready or willing to quit at the time, Rehab was a forced situation and I even "opted" to leave rehab early.

    If she had not knocked on my door that day, I am sure I would have knocked on hers.

    The true reason we deal with these types of situations is the large amounts of money the prison systems make in incarcerating drug dealers and users instead of decriminalizing the drugs and offering safety and treatment programs.

    I have spent time in the Netherlands where the drugs are cheaper and cleaner than here in the states,

    I was amazed at the level of health and safety programs available in Needle Park. Free clean syringes for users and methadone treatments, for those wanting to kick.

    That sounds like a better solution to me.
  15. Trying Again
    I'm not in the USA but my take on it is that the addict is the one usually pursuing the dealer so they are responsible.

    The only exception I see is when dealers approach children or get them involved in drug running from an early age. Then I fully blame the dealer.
  16. angielou123
    im in uk and I would not blame the dealer. They are making their money, albiet off the misery of the user, but the user WANTS the dealer. If no dealers are available, I know userss who would go to the next town to find another. Whos faults that?
  17. D0pe
    A Licensed gun dealer is not responsible for someones misuse of a weapon.. If it gets stolen or if it is used in a crime.. "As long as they follow the rules"

    A Doctor is not responsible when he legally and responsibly prescribes pills and a patient takes the whole bottle.

    If everyone was held liable for deaths that were related to a company, person or outside entity then there would be allot of people doing prison time...

    When topics like these come up i often think about Gun Rights..

    People say Guns Kill people.. And i know a gun is not comparable to a drug.. But i am using it as a analogy. Guns do not kill, People do. The same way a spoon and fork is responsible for the deaths of masses of people who are morbidly obese and have poor health.

    I do not think a dealer should be held responsible, Other than breaking the law of selling the drug itself..

    I could sell someone a bottle of bleach. If they drink it and die will i get arrested ? Nope..

    Not to mention there is a certain code of ethics that is suppose to be agreed upon when you enter the realm of responsible drug use.. The dealer and the user both knows that there is a risk, And the risk is payed for.. It is known and there is no verbal or written contract saying that you have a warranty on your life or your freedom to not get in trouble if you are busted.. And your drug dealer certainly does not offer a warranty or insurance on your life..

    The Code of Ethics when purchasing drugs and when busted is.. I do not know where i got it from and i am certainly not going to tell on anyone. When a person is dead they of course cannot tell on anybody and all they can go on is evidence.

    But what says that it was his drug that killed this person ? It could of been a accumulation of drugs used through a long period of time and then finally the body , brain and or heart said.. Nope not any more i am quitting on you. ""Lights out""...

    They know the Victim had prior drug use in the past.. So is every drug dealer prior to that held responsible as a suspect in his death ? Just as if 10 people all witnessed a cold blooded murder and the abduction of said person.. Just one person killed the guy, But there was 9 other people who knew about it and contributed to the crime... Each one guilty of a crime that connects to murder.

    Ethically or morally do i think the drug dealer is responsible ? No
    Legally do i think the drug dealer is responsible ? I have no opinion

    I certainly do not think the drug dealer should be made a example of because it was a celebrity that died. Why would a important persons life have higher value than someone elses life ? In the eyes of the law it should be the same thing.. But it is not ! Because the media and popular culture will always influence the masses.

    The person that is responsible is the person who died.. They knew very well the consequences and horrors of addiction. This cannot be disputed. When you are that far into a addiction you are aware of the risks and have experienced the horrors.
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