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Redemption or Revenge? New RI Law Seeks Life Sentence for Drug Dealers

close-up jail prison cellblock row black and white

The Rhode Island House of Representatives passed what is known as “Kristen’s Law” this month, a law named after a young woman who overdosed on fentanyl in 2014, believing that the drug was heroin. The man who sold her the drug was charged with second-degree murder. He pleaded no contest, and in so doing, he made history as the first drug dealer in the state of Rhode Island to be convicted for murder for playing a part in a drug overdose death.

This level of accountability for the lives lost to overdose is something that proponents of Kristen’s Law support. They want to ensure that anyone who sells a drug that causes an overdose will be unable to repeat that choice, and they believe that this is the way to do it.

Many disagree, however. Those who are against Kristen’s Law say that it will do little more than fill the jail with low-level drug dealers, most of whom are struggling with their own addictions. Protesters lament the loss of those who would spend a lifetime in prison without any possibility of undergoing treatment and learning how to live a life that helps others.

The bill passed the Rhode Island Senate a week prior with a vote of 55-14, and Gov. Gina Raimondo has said that she will take time to hear from people on both sides of the discussion before deciding whether or not she will sign the bill into law or veto.

At a recent rally, people stood up to cite personal examples of mistakes made due to an untreated drug addiction in the past only to go to jail and/or treatment and completely turn their lives around. They believe that the law will effectively stop this important process from happening and will end up stealing lives that could be saved.

Others cited the pain and loss of losing a loved one to an accidental overdose and how they believe that this law is key to ensuring that the drug dealers who take lives are not free to continue selling their wares, thereby saving lives in the process. They believe that stiff penalties may deter others from making the same choices and perhaps save more innocent lives as well.

Since 2014, this law has gone through many incarnations and been up for debate repeatedly. A number of changes have been made in response to some of the concerns voiced. For example, one addition made it clear that an individual who shared their drugs with someone else who ultimately died of an overdose would not be subject to the law. Many, however, believe that that is not enough to safeguard the people who may inadvertently contribute to an overdose due in part to their own struggle with addiction.

Representative Moira Walsh stands solidly against the passing of Kristen’s Law. She said: “You can have loss in your life and not seek revenge but seek redemption. Drug kingpins are not going to be the ones affected by this law. For the most part an addict who wakes up next to an overdosed person is not a kingpin, but a drug addict themselves.”

“Drug addicts are people, too. There is no manual for addiction. It’s not only poor or irresponsible people, or only people who deserve it. I understand Kristen’s mom is angry and hurt, but revenge is not the way to do this. The war on drugs has already ripped so many children away from their parents. It traumatizes generations and Governor Raimondo knows this.”

What Do You Think?

Is Kristen’s Law a way to help families who have lost a loved one to drug overdose to get revenge on the person immediately responsible for putting the drug in their hands? Or, do you think that it serves as a way to protect lives by taking one dealer off the street and serving as a warning to others?

It is important to remember when considering this issue that both sides have good intentions, and both sides likely believe that their way of handling the issue is the safest and most effective way. On the other hand, it is also important to note that stigma may be playing a large role in the decision-making process for some. If stigma is removed and addiction is seen as the medical disorder that it is, the conversation could be completely different.

What do you think?

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