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Should Drug Dealers Be Charged With Manslaughter Or Murder?

When someone dies from taking an illicit drug, there's often a rush to name someone responsible and find a way to prevent it from happening again.

The all-too-familiar yet worrying-common moment a young person dies after taking a drug always ignites a passionate argument for change.

There's been a plethora of suggestions from pill testing to selling regulated drugs over the counter, but in the US a more radical approach has been tabled, which could see drug dealers convicted of murder.

READ MORE: Selling MDMA In Shops Could Be A Smart Move, Drug Experts Say

Lawmakers in Connecticut, Hawaii, Mississippi and Virginia proposed murder and manslaughter charges for people who sell drugs that lead to a person's death.  In fact, 20 states already have the 'drug-induced homicide' laws, but would they work in Australia?

Would tougher drug laws work in Australia? Image: Getty Images.

There are already pretty tough penalties in place for people who supply drugs in Australia. If found guilty, a person can face up to 25 years or life in prison. If someone is convicted of drug supply there are 'mitigating and aggravating' features taken into account when a person is sentenced.

The death of someone as a result of drug supply is one such aggravating factor, which could possibly result in a harsher penalty.

READ MORE: More Aussies Dying From Prescription Painkillers Than Heroin, Damning Figures Reveal

"It is taken into account at sentencing and the penalty that would apply would reflect that someone has been harmed," senior lawyer from Sydney Criminal Lawyers Ali Saleh told 10 daily.

"The fact that a person died is the aggravating feature and it's an aggravating factor in any case, not just relating to drugs, where harm or injury was caused to a person."

Saleh said the difficulty with charging a drug dealer with murder is proving they deliberately intended to harm someone.

Death of a person is an aggravating factor and could lead to a harsher sentence. Image: Getty Images.

Prosecutors would need to have witnesses linking the person who died to a specific dealer. More commonly, a person's text messages are examined to link a dealer and a deceased person.

"The charge of manslaughter and murder, they have to prove intent to harm someone by way to drugging them as opposed to a person actively buying a drug from a drug dealer knowing the full risks of that," Saleh said.

"I have never seen that before [a drug dealer being charged with murder] because the drug dealer is not liable to what happens to the drug user, at the end of the day you knew the risk and bought the drug."

Drug advocacy groups, however, are pushing for a long-term educational approach to curbing dangerous drug taking, rather than increasing law enforcement.

Strict law enforcement and criminalisation stigmatises drug users rather than treat the social issue,  according to CEO of the NSW Users and AIDs Association Mary Hallod.

The stigma around drug taking needs to change: Image: Getty Images.

"We are living in a deeply flawed legal framework and I would say it's not the individual in it, the drug user or the dealer, it's broader in the way that we treat drug users as a society. That is the issue," Hallod told 10 daily.

As a former user herself, Hallod said stigma about drug users is perpetuated by the way they are perceived as " write-offs because we made a choice to use an illicit substance".

Current law enforcement tactics and government policy target the individual, while Hallod argues a wider structural approach to education and treatment for drug users is needed to overhaul the system.

"We need to take it out of that realm of personal responsibility, I mean individuals are responsible for their actions, but it is a broader social problem and we need to ... aim to reform the laws at some stage," Hallod said.

"I think we need to take the politics out of what is a health issue."

CEO of the Network of Alcohol and Other Drugs Agencies (NADA) Larry Pierce also called for a wider, more long-term approach to tackling issues about drug use and supply.

Politics needs to be removed from health issues. Image: AAP

A similar and sustained campaign model, like those seen for tobacco, drink driving and driver mobile phone use, should be adopted to change people's behaviour and perception of drugs.

READ MORE: Mobile Phones Behind The Wheel Are Drivers' Biggest Road Fear: Study

"We don't really have an effective, integrated and long-term approach to working with at-risk populations in relation to early intervention, good drug and alcohol information and specifically targeted campaigns." Pierce said.

He said the way law enforcement targets individual dealers and users demonstrates the need for complete structural change.

"Not every person who is dealing is a 'Mr Big' and those are the people the police end up picking up, the sort of people carrying a traffickable amount but only enough to supply a local or small-ish network," Pierce said.

Contact Siobhan at skenna@networkten.com.au