‘Not calling 911:’ Should drug overdose deaths be treated as felony murder?

‘Not calling 911:’ Should drug overdose deaths be treated as felony murder?
Richmond resident Jordan Siebert says a new law aimed at treating fatal drug overdoses as a felony homicide unfairly punishes people with addictions. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The best way Jordan Siebert knows to describe it is simple: chaos.

The 39-year-old Richmond woman has battled drug use on-and-off since she was an adolescent and she’s seen overdoses. She’s seen strangers carry an unconscious woman from a room. She’s been the subject of those emergency calls for help.

“There’s such panic and chaos,” Siebert said. “You’re not actually thinking, other than this very — how do I explain this — it’s very instinctual. It’s ‘Oh my God, that could’ve been me. We’re shooting out of the same bag. Why did this person go out, and I didn’t go out?’ It’s awful.”

Siebert’s drug of choice was heroin, one of several opioids that have caused the fatal drug overdose rate to surge in Virginia. And a potential new law that is sitting on Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk awaiting his signature, she said, will do nothing to help people in the throes of addiction — but she does think it will deter them from calling emergency services for help.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, states that a person is guilty of felony homicide if they manufactured, sell, gift or distribute drugs that cause a fatal overdose.

On one side, law enforcement officials argue they need the legislation to go after dealers and suppliers who are putting dangerous drugs on the streets after a 2013 appeals court decision impeded their ability to do so.

But groups like the ACLU of Virginia and the Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery Alliance, or SAARA, argue that the legislation continues to treat the disease of addiction as a crime, and would allow prosecutors to press charges against friends and fellow users rather than big-time dealers.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.