The Dangers of Laws Against Drug Supply Causing Death: An Interview With Urban Survivor Union’s Louise Vincent

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Urban Survivor Union’s Louise Vincent

On the second last sitting day of the parliamentary year, the Berejiklian government passed legislation that created the new offence of supply of drugs causing death. This latest drug war tactic can see an individual imprisoned for supplying a drug that proves lethal for up to 20 years.

And while NSW attorney general Mark Speakman has made assurances that this law won’t be applied in the situation where a young individual supplies their friend with a pill that they’ve sourced for them, there’s nothing specifically in the legislation to rule out that scenario.

The state government passed this law based on the recommendation of a panel tasked with investing safety at music festivals, which was established in response to the drug-related deaths of two young Australians at Sydney’s Defqon.1 festival in September.

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian told the music festival safety panel that they were not to consider pill testing, which allows people to check whether their illicit drugs could cause death. This harm reduction method has successfully saved lives in European countries where it’s utilised.

Instead, the Liberal Nationals government has introduced a law that they’ve posited will prevent drug-related deaths and catch significant dealers, whereas evidence from elsewhere in the world tells us that these laws actually have the opposite effect.

Intensifying the problem

Jennifer Marie Johnson is currently serving a six year prison sentence in a United States correctional facility for supplying her husband with some of her own legally prescribed methadone that led to his overdose death.

Erik Scott Brown received a 23 year prison sentence after supplying his friend with some heroin which led to his death. Brown failed to call emergency services after his friend began overdosing because he was aware he could be prosecuted for his death.

In the United States, the law is referred to as drug-induced homicide. And a 2017 Drug Policy Alliance report found that these laws are actually exacerbating the current overdose crisis in that country as people are failing to seek help in drug-related health emergencies for fear of punishment.

Shifting the blame

Urban Survivors Union executive director Louise Vincent stated in a recent article that drug-induced homicide laws actually result in “two lives being lost instead of one – and a false appearance of retribution, justice and revenge”.

And Ms Vincent knows this all too well. Tragically, in March 2016, she lost her 19-year-old daughter to overdose.

According to Vincent, drug-induced homicide laws fail to target high-level drug suppliers, but instead result in the prosecution of friends and small-time dealers. And these laws also shift the blame onto individuals, rather than pinpointing the real culprit: drug prohibition.

Do not prosecute

But, the Urban Survivors Union is pushing back. It recently launched the #ReframeTheBlame campaign, which allows individuals to sign do not prosecute directives asking authorities not to imprison someone who’s supplied them with a drug that subsequently leads to their death.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke to Louise Vincent about the effect drug-induced homicide laws are having in North Carolina, how the crime turns overdose deaths into drug war propaganda, and why she asserts drug prohibition should be brought to an end.

Firstly, Ms Vincent, how long have drug-induced homicide laws been in effect in North Carolina?

We know that they started using these laws back in the early 80s, during the height of crack and the drugs wars. That’s when these laws were put on the books. And they were intended for large cartel-size dealers.

They weren’t used until recently. And now we’re seeing them come back. Next year, there’s supposed to be a bill put through in North Carolina that’s going to make it even easier to push for these drug-induced homicide laws.

So, how have they been applied recently? And what has been their effect?

The way that they’re being applied is certainly inequitable. And they’re not being applied across the board to every person that ends up in this situation. They’re applied when a police officer or the district attorney wants to apply the pressure.

And we know how that works: when somebody is targeted by the drug war, when somebody is seen in a less positive light. We have all of these racial divisions in America. And certainly, the interplay of race is a huge component here.

This idea of us versus them. The “drug dealer” versus the drug user/victim. These ideas are really way too simple for such a complicated and complex problem.

Are these laws found all around the US?

The Drug Policy Alliance produced a report. And it’s pretty comprehensive. They had 20 states applying these laws.

More and more often, what we are seeing is that they’re not being applied to cartel-size dealers at all. It’s family members. The way the law is written it says “distributed”, so that can be the last person who handed you the drug.

That is often the boyfriend or the girlfriend. The lowest hanging fruit. Low-level dealers that don’t have anything to do with cartels. Most of the time, they’re people who are also actively using.

They’re disconnected from society. They have not intended to harm the person. And it’s just a real tragedy.

The piece that I wrote in Filter is really about how we shift the blame around. These ideas about blame and the need to blame people to make ourselves feel like we’re doing right by our children, or our loved ones.

So, by doing this, I’m honouring the life of my child. And what we’re pushing back on is that this is not at all honouring someone that uses drugs. In fact, they’re using us to push a drug war that has done nothing but harm us.

You also made the point that in shifting the blame it’s also masking the fact that it’s the punitive laws that are the problem.

Absolutely, it’s another one of these ways that we continuously trick people into believing that the problem is the people and not the policy. In fact, the name for the project ongoing is Reframe the Blame From People to Policy, so that we can see that it’s really the policy. It’s not the people.

Do we have drug problems, or do we have drug policy problems? What is really creating all of this harm?

Right now, in the United States, we’re in the middle of a poisoning epidemic. The drug supply is poisoned with Fentanyl. It takes ten fifty-gallon barrels of Fentanyl to supply the entire United States for a year.

Ten barrels? We’re never going to keep ten barrels out of the United States. So, what are we talking about? These ideas that we are talking about don’t even begin to make a dent in the problem.

We could end this overdose epidemic right now. That’s the sad part. We have things that we could do right now and we’re not doing them.

As you’ve just mentioned, the Urban Survivors Union is running the #ReframeTheBlame campaign, which involves people signing directives asking authorities not to prosecute an individual who might have supplied them with drugs that subsequently lead to their death.

What has the response to the campaign been like?

It’s been amazing. We have over 4,000 signed do not prosecute (DNP) orders. We’ve had a number of media articles. The numbers are massive.

We did it on Overdose Awareness Day this year, but we were running up against time. We didn’t get funding for the project until right before the day. So, we couldn’t make as big a splash as we wanted to.

We’re looking at some different awareness days that we can roll this project into this fall, and certainly the summer for Overdose Awareness Day.

But, the response has been amazing. We have people signing DNP orders every day. What we would like to see are harm reduction organisations across the United States and around the world standing in support and solidarity with us.

This is the drug user voice. And what we are trying to do is amplify the drug user voice and say that this is in no way honouring our lives. We haven’t been honoured in our lives. We’ve been mistreated in our lives. We’ve been stigmatised and demoralised. At least, honour us in our death.

A drug-induced homicide law was passed here in NSW over a month ago in response to two drug-related deaths at a music festival. These young people who died didn’t know the contents of their drugs.

There’s a big campaign here to implement pill testing/drug checking services at these events, but the authorities won’t allow it.

Are those sort of services available in North Carolina?

This is the thing. We have Fentanyl test strips. And we are pushing Fentanyl test strips. That is a form of drug checking, but it’s certainly not enough. It’s just one tool.

Certainly, there needs to be drug checking. If the lettuce was poison, we would have testing all over the place. We would be doing something.

The bottom line is, we are not acting in the best interests of people right now. Now we have a massive gap. And we’ve got people talking about solutions that don’t make any sense.

And what about elsewhere in the States, are drug checking services readily available?

No. This is really sparse. We have Fentanyl test strips and that’s about it. It’s something, but it’s not enough.

What we need is decriminalisation and the end of prohibition. That would end this nonsense. But, that’s not going to happen. So, drug checking is a good place to start.

Certainly, at festivals, we have laws that prevent this. There’s the Rave Act. It prevents clubs and festivals from even engaging in these services, because by engaging in them they’re admitting that they have illegal behaviour going on at their event, which makes them liable.

There are huge problems with that. It’s called the Rave Act.

You’re the executive director of the Urban Survivors Union. What sort of work does your organisation carry out?

We run a syringe exchange in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s one of the only peer-run programs in the US south. And on a national level, we are building a national drug user union, which has been really difficult to do in the United States for a long time.

We have worked for about a year now, and we’re really building. We’re doing well. We’re connected with INPUD. And we’re working on being connected with VANDU.

We’re working in these different spaces trying to build awareness, grow power, work with our allies and really amplify the voices of people who use drugs, so we can inform policies and programs.

And lastly, the authorities have passed these drug-induced death laws in an effort to stop people dying as a result of drugs. Ms Vincent, rather than this approach, what would you recommend?

Certainly, the end to prohibition. Much of what Canada has done: safe injecting facilities, safe consumption rooms and drug checking.

Legalisation would end the black market immediately, which would be nice. But, certainly, reconnecting people to their communities. Addressing the issues that are going on. It’s time for us to look at these issues in complex ways and get away from the stigmatising and moralising.

What we have done with criminalisation is create a bunch of criminals out of people who are not criminals. It’s getting away from these all or nothing systems.

We’ve created a machine that demands to be fed. It’s not based on science. It’s not based on health. It’s not based in anything but greed. And it’s time we listen to science. We have so many people lost and families suffering.

We continue down roads that don’t make any sense. And we refuse to use what we have, which is the knowledge of other countries: Portugal, Canada and other places in Europe.

It’s so frustrating that we continue down this bloody path of the drug war, when we know it’s not working. We know it’s killing people. We know it’s destroying, demoralising and creating more pain and trauma then we have the capacity to deal with.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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