TORONTO -- It’s called “drug-induced homicide.”

Twenty-four American states have specific laws targeting dealers who sell drugs that kill. These laws carry a sentence, depending on the state, of anywhere from two years imprisonment to the death penalty.

As the toxic drug crisis sweeps across North America, there has been a staggering increase in the number of those charges being laid in the U.S. The trend, undocumented before now, has extended to Canada.

A W5 open source investigation has compiled the first-ever national research on the move by some police agencies to treat an overdose death as a potential crime. Combing through a database of media reports, court filings, and in rare cases, police statistics, we have uncovered a 700 per cent increase in manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death charges against those who deal, and even those who share drugs that result in death. In 2016, we could find just nine instances. By 2019 that number increased to 65.

The spike is due, in large part, to a novel, yet controversial approach to the overdose epidemic by Canada’s second largest police service, the Ontario Provincial Police. In 2018, the OPP developed a new policy to treat every overdose death as not just a medical call, but also a potential murder.

Chief Supt. Brian MacKillop is the architect of the mandate and says people who peddle what he calls “doses of death,” need to pay the price if someone dies.

“We have criminals out there who, with complete reckless disregard for the safety of our citizens, are peddling drugs that are killing people. And we just needed to do something to make sure we were holding people accountable. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. Iff a person's dealing fentanyl, they could very well be killing people.”

But does the punitive action do anything to save lives or stem the crisis? The U.S. non-profit Drug Policy Alliance says, categorically, that it does not.

“There has not been a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at doing anything. They're certainly not reducing supply, they're not reducing demand. And we know that overdose deaths are increasing across the country,” says policy director Lindsay LaSalle.

Their ground-breaking research, has found that most often those facing charges are friends, family members or low-level dealers who are themselves struggling with addiction. LaSalle says the approach to punish them is all wrong.

“You're attacking it from the wrong side. You are trying to go after the supply when the demand still exists, rather than trying to figure out what is ultimately underlying this demand and how can we provide services so that that demand doesn't exist rather than criminalizing the people who are simply supplying.”

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