Are drug dealers killers? It all depends.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh wants more prosecutors to go after drug dealers for manslaughter when people die from overdoses.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh wants more prosecutors to go after drug dealers for manslaughter when people die from overdoses.

Attorney General Brian Frosh has put the word out to local prosecutors: Drug dealers should be held responsible when they supply the drugs that kill people. He wants to see more charges for manslaughter in such situations now that there is the legal backing of Maryland’s highest court, which recently upheld the conviction of a Worcester County man who sold a potent strain of heroin to someone who overdosed.

These charges shouldn’t be brought in every case, just when drugs are given in a way that’s “grossly negligent,” Mr. Frosh told The Sun’s Phil Davis.


We are glad to hear Mr. Frosh’s caution against using this tactic overzealously. We need to be vigilant to make sure that is what really happens.

Just exactly what is considered “grossly negligent” will be in the eyes of each individual prosecutor, and we know that some will be more aggressive than others. What we don’t want is wide variance in use of the law that leads to inequitable prosecutions.

The tactic has the potential to be a new version of the war on drugs of the ’80s and ’90s, with the massive arrest of petty dealers, addicts and other small players in the drug game, most of them African American, that did little to stem the demand for the drug and stop overdoses. A new corner boy is recruited to take the place of the one now incarcerated, and the addict who doesn’t go to treatment still fiends for the next high.

Take the case of William Dolan, chronicled by Sun columnist Dan Rodricks. He was charged by prosecutors in Pennyslvania with “drug delivery resulting in death” for buying the heroin capsules that killed his brother. William Dolan also died of an overdose while out on bail. We’ll never know if being pegged a murderer contributed to his downward spiral and eventual death, but it’s well within the realm of possibility.

We thought the idea of bringing stronger charges against dealers was to prevent deaths, not lead to more? And what exactly is the definition of a “dealer”?

In the case taken up by the Court of Appeals of Maryland, the accused dealer, Patrick J. Thomas, supported his own addiction by selling drugs to fellow users in Ocean City. He was charged with manslaughter in Worcester County and convicted, which the highest court upheld. Mr. Thomas had sold the drug Banshee to a man who took four of the bags at once.

It seems if the states really want to stop the flood of drugs into the market, it is better to target the larger players who supply the Patrick Thomases of the world. Mr. Thomas is now behind bars, but that doesn’t mean the drugs aren’t getting into the hands of addicts. As long as the demand and the supply exist, the drug trade and the overdoses will continue.

In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam seems to get the idea. He vetoed legislation that would target dealers because of concern addicts would get swept up in the crackdown as well. That is not part of the “compassionate” approach to the current drug was that has been endorsed by so many.

Maryland lawmakers have been reluctant to pass laws that hold drug dealers accountable for overdoses — and rightfully so. Some analysis of laws in other states show they make little difference in the drug problem. But now the Court of Appeals says existing law supports such prosecutions, which have been common in other states.

With growing opioid epidemic and the appearance of potent additives like fentanyl and carfentanil, which can kill instantly, prosecutors have used charges of manslaughter and second-degree depraved heart murder against dealers. For manslaughter, the state must prove that a defendant acted in a grossly negligent manner or that the victim’s death occurred during the commission of an unlawful act. A depraved heart act is “the killing of another person while acting with an extreme disregard for human life.” But if those charges are used too liberally, we fear it will make witnesses to overdoses less likely to call for help and actually make the death toll worse.

This is not to say that targeting some drug dealers cannot be a tool in the opioid fight. We just think it should be used carefully. Mr. Frosh should issue more guidance so that we make sure the law is not abused and actually helps rather than hinders the fight to end the opioid epidemic. After all, Mr. Frosh won’t be attorney general forever, but precedents will be set. If he sets a sensible and transparent example, he will make it harder for others to abuse the law.