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He helped his overdosing friend by calling 911. Police slapped him with a manslaughter charge.

This simply won’t work to stop the opioid epidemic.

When his friend began overdosing last November, 32-year-old Christopher Williams did what everyone has been taught to do with a person in a medical emergency: He called 911. Tragically, his friend still died.

This week, Williams was charged with manslaughter for the death.

The reason: Williams was allegedly involved in helping 18-year-old Ariell Brundige in Clay County, Florida, get the drug that she overdosed on. That would normally involve, perhaps, charges for drug possession or distribution. But in this case, police have not only charged Williams with manslaughter, but have also charged 32-year-old Trumaine Muller, who supplied the drugs to Brundige, with murder and 26-year-old Tyler Hamilton, who also helped in getting the drugs, with manslaughter, according to

According to police, Brundige joined Hamilton, her boyfriend, and Williams, a friend, to buy what they thought was heroin from Muller. It turned out to be fentanyl, a potent and dangerous opioid. That transaction was enough, apparently, to charge Muller with murder and Hamilton and Williams with manslaughter.

Think about the signal this sends to people. Your friend is overdosing. She needs help. You need to call 911. But before you pick up the phone, you now need to consider: If you were involved in getting the drugs in any way, you might be charged with a very serious crime. Is it too risky, then, to call 911 for help?

This is exactly why some states, including Florida, have passed Good Samaritan laws in response to the harrowing opioid epidemic. These laws give the people who call 911 legal immunity — typically for drug offenses — so they don’t fear criminal charges when they try to help someone in need. But the laws don’t stop harsher charges, like those for manslaughter.

The idea behind the Good Samaritan laws is to make it easier for people to save lives. That’s desperately needed: In 2015, the opioid epidemic led to more than 33,000 opioid overdose deaths and more than 52,000 total drug overdose deaths nationwide. In Florida, the number of overdose deaths climbed by 22.7 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As law enforcement increasingly steps up its response to the opioid epidemic, it’s resorting to more and more punitive criminal charges for anyone involved with the drugs. The reality, however, is not only does this send the wrong signal to someone picking up the phone to dial 911, but the research overwhelmingly shows that this is a totally ineffective way of using public resources if the goal is to truly stop the opioid crisis.

“Tough on crime” doesn’t work

This is something that is really happening across the country. As Daniel Denvir wrote for Vice in 2015, prosecutors are starting to bring murder and manslaughter charges against heroin dealers and even users who give the drug to friends and family. The idea is that those who provide opioids to people who overdose and die are culpable for the deaths, because they provided the drug that got someone killed. And by imposing a harsher sentence through a murder charge, the hope is that future drug dealers and friends or family of drug users will be deterred from sharing or selling such substances.

The empirical evidence, however, simply does not support this approach. A 2014 study from Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago found there’s no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of driving down access to drugs and substance abuse than lighter penalties. So increasing the severity of the punishment doesn’t do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs.

In fact, the research suggests that harsher punishments in general don’t do much to prevent crime. As the National Institute of Justice concluded in 2016, “Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment. … Research has found evidence that prison can exacerbate, not reduce, recidivism. Prisons themselves may be schools for learning to commit crimes.”

In other words, more certainty of punishment can deter crime, while more severity — through longer prison sentences — can actually make crime worse.

This is something that even some former supporters of harsh punishments for drugs now acknowledge. In congressional testimony, Kevin Ring, a former congressional aide who helped enact mandatory minimums and now speaks out against them through the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said, “Most of these guys made stupid mistakes without any idea of what the punishment was — they just didn’t think they were going to get caught. So you can make the severity off the charts — you can do a life sentence for jaywalking — it’s not going to stop it.”

Simply put, the “tough on crime” approach just doesn’t work to deter drug use or criminal behavior.

The real solution lies in public health

Still, the fact is that America has an opioid problem. In 2015, there were more than 52,000 drug overdose deaths, and nearly two-thirds of those were linked to opioids like Percocet, Vicodin, heroin, and fentanyl. The total number of drug overdose deaths was far greater than the more than 38,000 who died in car crashes, the more than 36,000 who died due to gun violence, and the more than 43,000 who died due to HIV/AIDS during that epidemic’s peak in 1995.

That the crisis got so bad speaks to the failure of decades of policy: Years of “tough on crime” approaches couldn’t prevent the worst drug crisis in history.

So what can we do about it?

Some policymakers have increasingly focused on the public health side. There’s good reason for that: In the most comprehensive analysis of addiction in America, the surgeon general in 2016 found that the US massively underfunds addiction care. It concluded, for example, that just 10 percent of Americans with a drug use disorder get specialty treatment, in large part due to a shortage in treatment options.

So federal and state officials have pushed for more treatment funding, including medication-assisted treatment like methadone and buprenorphine. In 2016, even Congress — not exactly known for its expediency — approved an extra $1 billion in funding over two years for drug treatment in response to the opioid crisis.

But public health advocates argue that more needs to be done to make treatment accessible. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, estimates that the US needs to spend potentially tens of billions of dollars more a year to deal with a crisis so grave.

“We need a massive increase in funding for addiction treatment,” he argued. “We’re not going to get anywhere in terms of reducing overdose deaths until you have very low threshold access to buprenorphine treatment or methadone in some cases” — referring to two medications used for treating opioid addiction.

Polls show that most Americans prefer treating drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. And many experts, including the International Narcotics Control Board, have asked for a greater focus on public health policies to curtail demand for drugs.

Even some police departments are warming up to this approach. For example, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the police chief in 2015 announced that his officers will no longer charge heroin users with a crime, even if they have drugs, and instead offer to put them in rehabilitative treatment. Other cities, like Cincinnati, have adopted similar approaches.

But some governments and agencies continue perpetuating “tough on crime” thinking on drugs — from Indiana upping prison sentences for drugs to an Ohio town charging heroin users with “inducing panic” to the latest action in Clay County, Florida. But the evidence suggests that will all be ineffective, and it could shift resources from where help is really needed.

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