Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson believes that drug-induced deaths are “becoming an epidemic” and that the Chicago police should “do what [they] can to reduce that.”
For the past few years, that has meant declining to criminally investigate these deaths. But that’s changing: Theresa Almanza, the stepmother of a teenager who died after taking ecstasy back in 2015, who is also a police officer, is one of those who has pushed hard in Chicago for people who provide drugs involved in deaths to be charged with homicide. Bereaved parents, whether calling for punitive or enlightened drug policies, can be uniquely powerful advocates.
“I’m confident we’ll be able to model what they have out in McHenry County [Illinois],” Superintendent Johnson told CBS Local Chicago, referring to that 2015 case. “Our children, their lives matter too, and these cases must be investigated criminally.”
Chicago police are reportedly creating a task force to start handling these cases that will be similar to the operations of McHenry County State’s Attorney office, where for “Every single overdose case that happens in McHenry County, we assign a lawyer to work with police,” said Patrick Kenneally, McHenry County state’s attorney.
More recent data show that nine people were charged in 2017 alone, according to a local paper, the Northwest Herald. McHenry County has already seen more charges doled out in 2019—such as a case where a man was charged with drug-induced homicide for giving his girlfriend the Xanax that she fatally combined with fentanyl and heroin. (In March, he received a sentence for felony possession with intent to deliver, though the drug-induced homicide charge was dismissed.)
Drug-induced homicide charges were introduced into Illinois with a 1989 law that considers delivering a controlled substance to another person whose “death is caused by the injection, inhalation, absorption, or ingestion of any amount of that controlled substance” to be a felony.
During a 1988 legislative session considering the drug-induced homicide bill prior to its passage, Democratic Senator Emil Jones Jr. said that it reaches “the suppliers who are currently shielded from being prosecuted under our current law, and I personally prefer the death penalty. If we could amend the constitution to get it in there, I’d be pushing for that,” according to the Chicago Tribune .
In the case of Almanza’s daughter, two people ended up being prosecuted with the felony, one that carries a minimum of 15 years in prison. For Almanza, this was justice.
At one point, Louise Vincent, executive director of the drug-user organization Urban Survivors Union, might have agreed. After Vincent lost her 19-year-old daughter to an overdose, she felt rage against the dealer who supplied the drugs.
“I wanted the person who gave my daughter the drugs to pay,” Vincent wrote for Filter. “Her friends, her boyfriend, I did not care. I wanted to hurt this person, punish them.”
But as the community gathered to heal in the wake of her daughter’s death, Vincent realized that the politicians who “mislead society into believing this [punitive] response is necessary and appropriate” are the ones who deserve the blame for people’s drug-related deaths. She has since run a campaign for people who use drugs to sign a document declaring that in the event of their death, they do not want a drug-induced homicide charge to result.
Filter contributor Tessie Castillo has pointed out that people who sell drugs often also use them, and that it makes no sense to blame them for the overdose crisis. “There is no stark divide between predator and prey,” she wrote. “As with most things, reality is gray.” Contrary to the stereotype of predatory, money-craving dealers, people are selling drugs just to get by.
Additionally, people of color bear the brunt of punitive attacks on people selling drugs. According to 2014 data from Bureau of Justice Statistics, black people were arrested at three times the rate of white people for allegedly dealing drugs—even though use and sale rates are similar for both.
In McHenry County, Illinois, where black people constitute under 2 percent of the population, over 35 percent (four out of 11 between 2013 and 2016) of drug-induced homicide cases brought by prosecutors targeted black people. Such disparities would be even more horrifying if replicated in Chicago, a major city with a large black population.
“The outcome in drug-induced homicide cases is two lives lost instead of one—and a false appearance of retribution, justice and revenge,” Vincent wrote.
Photograph: Mark’s Postcard’s From Beloit via Flickr