Why Charging People With Homicide For Overdose Deaths Is Revenge And Not Justice

There is a great chasm of difference between revenge and justice. While these two words are often used interchangeably, it is extraordinarily important that we recognize how seeking revenge and pursuing justice are not one and the same when it comes to addressing the opioid overdose crisis in this nation. The reality is that any real progress and mitigation of harm will require that we abstain from revenge advocacy and policy making as we instead seek restorative justice. To help us first understand the differences between revenge and justice, the article “Don’t Confuse Revenge With Justice: Five Key Differences” by Dr. Leon F. Seltzer lists five concrete ways in which revenge and justice differ. For the purpose of this article, we will look at how these differences apply in the movement to charge people with homicide for distributing a drug that led to an overdose death.

Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice primarily rational.

In times of grief, anger is part of the healing process. And while I know what it is like to lose my mother to an overdose death, along with countless other beautiful souls I have encountered over the years, I cannot imagine the depths of grief experienced by parents who have lost a child to an overdose death. I cannot fathom what it feels like to be a parent who has lost a child when that unimaginable grief enters into its inevitable stage of anger. Without personal experience as a parent, the best I can reach is compassion for justifiable feelings of anger. In holding space for that compassion however, it is also imperative that we do not let our nation’s policy making become driven and informed by this anger. When we are coming from a place of emotion, we are not using the parts of our brain that use logic. We have lost the ability to see the bigger picture and to think of long-term strategies and solutions. When it comes to charging people with homicide for a drug overdose death, this may bring what feels like momentary emotional justice but it cannot and will not ever bring logical, rational justice - for anybody.

Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon.

When we are blinded by our pain, it can be difficult to approach something from a more impersonal and impartial place. If we are ever to get at real solutions for the opioid crisis, it is of dire importance that we come from the higher place of seeing all of the social, environmental, psychological and economic factors that go into a person distributing and using drugs. Revenge limits us in just blaming a person. Justice expands us to blaming the larger systems and dynamics at play. For the overwhelming majority of people being prosecuted for homicide in drug overdose deaths, there are so many factors at play in how and why that human being - somebody’s child, brother, sister, classmate, neighbor - wound up in the position of distributing a drug to somebody else. If we are to get at real solutions, we must look less at that human being as the problem and more at the systems and dynamics that resulted in that particular human being becoming a symptom bearer of its problems.

Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication.

It may feel like punishing the person who provided the drug involved in an overdose death will bring about a sense of vindication. The reality is that punishment is driven by vindictiveness. And yes, while perhaps there may be a short-lived experience of what is mistakenly perceived as vindication, everything we know about revenge tells us that in the long-run, it will not be what brings about both personal healing and true vindication. It will not be what stops other people from experiencing overdose deaths. It will not address the larger factors behind what leads to substance misuse. It will not combat the reality of why there are tainted drug markets in this country. It will not prevent others from experiencing the very same pain those of us who lost somebody to an overdose death are experiencing. While punishing somebody will fulfill the desire for revenge, it will only be through addressing the larger factors at play that we will ever bring about justice and vindication.

Revenge is about cycles; justice about closure.

When we act out of revenge, we keep the ripple effect of harm going. Not only is the target of our revenge harmed but all those around them are harmed as well, including those of us who sought revenge. The following quote by Lewis B. Smedes captures this idea well: “The problem with revenge is that it never evens the score. It ties both the injured and the injurer to an escalator of pain. Both are stuck on the escalator as long as parity is demanded, and the escalator never stops.” The reality is that acting out of revenge is not only frivolous in reaching real solutions but that it keeps the cycle of harm going. Closure, healing and real solutions will only be found through seeking justice instead of revenge.

Revenge is about retaliation; justice about restoring balance.

Revenge has a deeply personal retaliatory feel to it. Justice is more impartial and considers all sides of what is happening. When it comes to the opioid overdose crisis and charging people with homicide for overdose deaths, it is so important that we seek less to retaliate and more to get at the real solutions. While laws allowing for the homicide prosecutions of people who distributed a drug involved in an overdose death were initially designed for taking down drug kingpins, most people being prosecuted are low-level street dealers and at times even friends of the person who overdosed. These are people at the bottom of the distribution chain who will be replaced just as fast as they have been arrested. While there may be emotional fulfillment found in retaliating against the person who last touched the drug, this approach does nothing to address the bigger picture. At the end of the day, justice will only be achieved when we restore balance. And balance will only be restored when we focus less on the short-sighted and harmful approaches of revenge and instead look at pursuing social justice in the realm of those larger factors that brought us to this place to begin with.

“Any story about revenge is ultimately a story about forgiveness, redemption, or the futility of revenge.” - Nick Wechsler

For further reading and personal stories about the harmful movement to charge people with homicide for overdose deaths, please check out the Drug Policy Alliance report “An Overdose Death Is Not Murder: Why Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Are Counterproductive and Inhumane.”

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