Changes to a North Carolina law make it easier to prosecute people who distribute drugs, including fentanyl, if the drug user dies
Carolina Public Press interviewed six parents of children who died and the partner of a man who did as well. Fentanyl, a powerful narcotic painkiller, was involved in each death. Often, those close to the victims reported, prosecutors declined to bring charges for death by distribution, saying the evidence was not strong enough.
Under a state law that takes effect next month, anyone who provides certain drugs to a person who dies after taking them may be prosecuted for second-degree murder — whether they received money for the drugs or shared them freely.
“Death by distribution” first became a crime in North Carolina in 2019. Originally, the law applied only to people who got paid for drugs that later proved fatal. In September, legislators expanded the law’s reach to include anyone who provides certain drugs, including fentanyl, when those drugs result in an overdose death.
Carolina Public Press interviewed six parents of children who died and the partner of a man who died as well. Fentanyl, a powerful narcotic painkiller, was involved in each death. Most of the families reported that prosecutors declined to bring charges for death by distribution, saying that the evidence was not strong enough.
The family members, as well as people who study drug use or work to combat it, are divided over whether the law’s approach is good or bad. Those in favor described death by distribution charges as essential to bring justice in fentanyl death cases. Critics argued that the strategy could unjustly criminalize and disproportionately affect substance users and people of color.
When Cassandra Carter returned to Durham on May 18 after an anniversary trip with her husband last year, she couldn’t reach her 29-year-old son. She tried for days, the 56-year-old mother said, finally asking police to make a welfare check at his apartment in Durham on May 20. Officers found Gregory Chase Carter, or “Chase” as he was known to his family, dead on the floor. He had been dead for more than 24 hours, the family was told.
Items found in the apartment included “a scale with white powder” and “a substance thought to be marijuana,” according to the report of the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The Carter family requested an autopsy and a toxicology analysis.
The family buried Chase, a 2011 graduate of the Durham School of the Arts, without knowing what caused his death. When the toxicology report arrived four months later, it showed cocaine laced with 22 nanograms per milliliter of fentanyl. The drug, which is highly addictive, is 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin as a painkiller, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA.