Arresting Bystanders to Overdoses Won’t End the Opioid Epidemic

Law enforcement officers are picking a peculiar strategy for tackling the opioid epidemic: arresting people who witness overdoses. This approach has the effect of criminalizing the people around an individual who is struggling with opioid addiction, increasing stigma and making it harder to access care — without actually doing much to curb the supply of illegal opioids on the street.

Specifically, law enforcement agencies are trying to target dealers as the ultimate source of opioids, responding to what they see as a flood of illegal drugs that needs to be stopped in its tracks. However, the friends and close associates of people with substance abuse disorders also sometimes help them obtain drugs, acting — in the eyes of the law — as dealers or people who are “delivering” drugs.

When a friend, neighbor, partner or other associate obtains drugs for someone and that person overdoses, they’re considered legally liable.

These deaths are treated as “drug-induced homicides” and prosecuted as crimes — particularly in regions struggling with high numbers of people addicted to opioids, where officials are feeling helpless in the face of the epidemic. In some states, specific laws allow prosecutors to pursue investigation in such cases. In others, officials may opt to use generic homicide or endangerment laws.

On the surface, holding people accountable for supplying drugs that harm or even kill someone might seem like a good idea. After all, if you struck someone with your car, you’d be considered responsible. And if you knowingly fed someone something that could injure them — like nuts to someone with an allergy — you’d also be liable.

But this doesn’t reflect the reality of life for people with substance disorders — or the social networks they create, which are often filled with fellow addicts who need support and assistance. Instead, it may make people nervous about calling for help if someone overdoses. The partner who supplies the heroin, for instance, might fear prosecution if they call emergency services.

Drug policy advocates recommend the extension of good samaritan laws to these settings, assuring people that they won’t be punished if they call for help and increasing the chances that people get care in time.

Arresting people involved as bystanders or one-time suppliers can have the effect of criminalizing addiction. People with substance abuse disorders can also struggle to access care in jail or prison. In some cases, they undergo a forced detox without support, and upon leaving, may immediately take drugs again — and overdose. In others, the level of addiction counseling and support provided can be highly variable. This care often isn’t followed up once people leave custody, so they tend to fall back into addiction.

And we also know that getting a dealer off the street — as in an actual dealer, not a person who gives drugs to a friend or family member on a specific occasion – just means that another appears. Treating opioid addiction as a crime that needs to be punished by cutting off the source isn’t working, warn advocates — and it would make more sense to address the demand side.

In other words, people should be connected with substance abuse treatment that will help them regain control of their lives and reduce their demand for illegal opioids. This treatment may include the use of medication-assisted therapy, in which people take medications like methadone as they detox. It can also involve therapy and connections with social workers who can help people apply for assistance — including housing, nutrition assistance and other needs, while connecting people with jobs and other resources.

For communities facing the challenge of opioid addiction, there’s no simple, clear solution — but it’s important to know what doesn’t work in order to develop an approach that will actually help. If you’re curious or concerned about how your region approaches this issue, check in with law enforcement and public health officials to learn more. And if the answers don’t satisfy you, consider working with organizations who are advocating on substance dependence and abuse treatment.

Photo credit: Premier of Alberta


Marie W
Marie W6 months ago

Thank you for sharing

Cindy S
Cindy Smithabout a year ago

arresting innocent people is awful

Chad A
Chad Andersonabout a year ago

Thank you.

Bill E
Bill Eagleabout a year ago

Arresting bystanders is just wrong.

Joanna M
Joanna Mabout a year ago

We also need to stop shaming and stigmatizing people who legitimately need opioids...the VAST MAJORITY of people with real prescriptions! My mom has an aggressive form of arthritis that has left her almost entirely housebound over the past year, unable to stand long enough to wash dishes or do a simple task. She is in constant pain too, to the point where she cannot sleep. Dr told her there is "no reason" for her to have any pain meds. She is only 61 and has zero quality of life.

Winn A
Winn Aabout a year ago


Winn A
Winn Aabout a year ago


Deborah W
Deborah Wabout a year ago

Where there is need, it should be addressed and supported. Where a "need" quickly becomes an over-excessive quick fix solution, clearly documented as such by consistent number of times and methods of "addressing" without any progress being made, then is the time to revisit access. Communities facing the challenge of opioid addiction know first hand there is no simple, clear solution — but also know what doesn’t work, as well as what is needed in order to develop an approach that will actually help That involves dedication, hard work and commitment by all parties engaged in this effort ... and therein lies the biggest problem. Manipulation.

John W
John Wabout a year ago


Monica Collier
Monica Collierabout a year ago

I am sick of hearing about this supposed epidemic. I went to the Emergency Room because my doctors told me to go there for pain meds. They refused to give me anything, not even an asprin. Some people need pain relief and are being denied care. Politicians shouldn't be able to tell physicians how to treat patients.