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Indiana’s Split Personality on Opioids

Later this month, the Indiana Supreme Court is hosting a statewide opioid summit for various community leaders and professionals. After opening remarks from Chief Justice Rush, who is the chairwoman for a nationwide opioid abuse task force, the first session of the summit will discuss how addiction is a disease of the brain that necessitates treatment. A later session will explain the harmful stigma attached to addiction and identify the legal barriers to effective treatment. One recommendation to be discussed at the summit is the implementation of laws that will provide immunity to friends, family members, and good samaritans who seek emergency help for overdose victims.

The overarching purpose of the summit seems clear: to educate others that addiction is a disease and not simply deviant behavior people engage in; and that like any individual battling a disease, a person suffering from addiction should be treated and not punished. Professionals working in the criminal justice system have known for decades that prison is not an effective deterrent for addictive behavior. Thus, the Supreme Court’s statewide summit is certainly a step in the right direction.

But it stands in stark contrast to the Indiana Legislature’s recent passage of a Len Bias law.¬†Effective July 1, 2018,¬†Indiana Code section 35-42-1-1.5 classifies the death of a user as either a Level 1 or Level 2 felony (depending on the controlled substance involved) for the individual who delivered the drug to the user. The new statute also provides that it is not a defense to the crime if the user voluntarily used the drug, or if the drug was combined with alcohol or another substance. To put this in perspective, the only offense more serious than a Level 1 felony is murder.

This new law is not going to affect dealers as much as it will affect low-level addicts. Rather than view addiction as a disease needing treatment, our Legislature apparently believes that severe punishment is the only cure. The new law will disincentivize others from seeking help for overdose victims and will encourage users to hide their addictions.

From an attorney’s perspective, it will be interesting to see how these conflicting perspectives on addiction from two branches of our government will interact in the future when a nearly certain legal challenge is brought regarding this new law.


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