America’s drug war is still here and still going strong. Today Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced her office had persuaded a grand jury to indict two fentanyl dealers for first-degree murder after they allegedly sold opiates to a user who died.
Rundle’s office said Karl Schmidt, age 21, and David Cash, age 52, had peddled the drug to David Calle, who overdosed. Charges like this are controversial in drug-treatment circles, and some critics believe they deepen drug problems rather than solve them. Murder charges for sale of fentanyl were not legal in Florida until last year — Rundle herself helped lobby the state Legislature to add fentanyl to the list of drugs that, when sold, could land you a murder sentence. That list has existed since 1982 but has been amended in recent years to include various opiates.
“As too many communities already know, fentanyl has played a major role in the overall increase in opioid deaths, locally and nationally,” Rundle’s spokesperson, Ed Griffith, wrote today in a media release. “Prior to the legislative change, a death related to fentanyl abuse could not be charged in such a manner.”
Both men were arrested February 7, according to a story in the Miami Herald. Calle allegedly asked Schmidt, who was a friend, to pick him up some heroin. Schmidt then bought the stuff from Cash and sold it to Calle.
In a media statement today, Rundle herself painted Schmidt and Cash as murderers.
“The opioid epidemic has already taken far too many lives and devastated far too many families,” she said. “Florida law holds responsible those who supply and sell the drugs which lead to a death. In today’s indictment, the grand jury agreed with our belief that the actions of Karl Schmidt and David Cash are responsible for Daniel Calle’s death. The statute was specifically designed to address these circumstances.”
Notably, laws such as this were dreamed up during the Ronald Reagan era but have been retrofitted in recent years to combat the opioid epidemic. Reformers, who want to end America’s demonstrably failed War on Drugs, have criticized these policies for years. Critics note that murder laws such as this don’t actually cut down on drug crime or drug dealing — they simply punish dealers who are often trapped in harsh, poverty-stricken conditions. The New Republic in September 2018 warned that these sorts of prosecutions appear to be “making today’s opioid crisis worse.” The magazine detailed a case in which an Ohio man was charged with murder as a dealer simply because he was an addict who shared drugs with a friend.
The laws push municipalities to try to arrest rather than treat their way out of opiate problems — a practice critics say has not worked since Richard Nixon began the modern drug war 50 years ago.
“If drug-induced homicide prosecutions are intended to send a message to dealers, there is no discernible evidence that it has been received,” the New Republic wrote.
Drug-war critic Dan Denvir wrote in Vice that the practice seems to be mostly netting small-time dealers and friends of addicts without tackling the major, structural issues that lead people into opiate addiction.He wrote:
Prosecutors across America are dusting off old statutes to pursue full-fledged murder charges against dealers and even fellow users and friends who pass or sell heroin to a person who then dies of an overdose. Possible sentences include life without parole. The law-and-order crackdown is taking place at a moment when prominent figures in both major parties are, for the first time in decades, seriously considering reducing a jail and prison population that has grown to well more than 2 million—and curbing a war on drugs that has persistently failed to dampen the appetite for the stuff.
Moreover, data shows the practice seems to overwhelmingly target small-time dealers. In 2002, the New Jersey Law Journal studied 32 drug-induced homicide cases and found that in 25 instances, the people charged were simply friends of the deceased. In 2017, a Wisconsin TV news station, WITI, studied 100 drug-induced murder cases, and found that just 11 cases involved high-level drug dealers.
But none of these criticisms have stopped Florida prosecutors from pursuing small-time opiate dealers for the sake of optics. The Florida Times-Union in 2017 criticized Jacksonville-area State Attorney Melissa Nelson for pushing to indict Trumaine Muller, a low-level heroin dealer. Nelson’s office dropped Muller’s murder case the next year.
This is not even the first time Rundle has charged people for dealing fentanyl that killed someone. In November 2018, her office persuaded a grand jury to charge two prison inmates who’d given drugs to a friend in jail. The inmate then died. That case is still pending.