Can drug dealers be held liable if a user dies?

The supplying of drugs in the United Kingdom

The use of controlled substances which are deemed illegal by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is a growing problem in the United Kingdom.

There are many issues involved with the use of illegal drugs such as associated crime and poverty. However, one of the biggest reasons for many of the controlled substances to be deemed illegal depends upon the health risks associated with the use of them.

The possibility of an overdose

With the use of many Class A substances – the most harmful under the Misuse of Drugs Act – there is a huge potential for the individual to suffer an overdose which can have extremely bad health problems. With a Class A controlled substance such as heroin, following an overdose there is an extremely high chance of the individual going into a coma resulting in death.

Can the individual which supplied the drug be charged with causing the death of the individual?

If an individual dies following an overdose from an illegal controlled substance that person who supplied the drug will not be able to be charged with murder as their actions in supplying the drug would not have the requisite intention needed to prove murder.

Would it be possible to prove manslaughter in this case?

The following different types of manslaughter may be relevant in cases concerning the supply of illegal drugs:

  • Unlawful act manslaughter
  • Gross negligence manslaughter

Unlawful act manslaughter

What is meant by unlawful act manslaughter?

Unlawful act manslaughter will have occurred whereby the defendant will have committed an unlawful act which results in the death of a victim.

What needs to be proven in order to establish unlawful act manslaughter?

In order for a case of unlawful act manslaughter the following elements need to be present:

  • That the defendant has committed an unlawful act
  • That this unlawful act has resulted in the death of the victim

Can this be found in cases involving drug dealers?

In a recent case whereby an individual prepared a syringe containing heroin for a victim who then injected himself and subsequently died of an overdose the individual was held to have committed unlawful act manslaughter.

However, this decision was reversed upon appeal.

Why was the decision changed upon appeal?

The House of Lords in the appeal stated that the problem of causation had been ignored. Where a third party acts in a free, voluntary and informed way and causes the result of death the chain of causation will be broken.

Would the supply of an illegal drug not constitute an unlawful act?

The supply of an illegal drug is a criminal act and therefore unlawful act under the terms of the Misuse of Drugs Act. However, when the victim injected himself with the drug it was a free, voluntary and informed action. The defendant was therefore not a secondary to an unlawful act by the victim as injecting himself was not unlawful.

What does this tell us about unlawful act manslaughter?

Following this case it has been held that where a drug dealer supplies drugs and victim subsequently dies having injected themselves with the drugs, the individual who dealt the drugs can never be guilty of unlawful act manslaughter. 

Gross Negligence Manslaughter

What is meant by gross negligence manslaughter?

Gross negligence manslaughter is a form of involuntary manslaughter whereby the defendant is effectively acting lawfully in their actions.

Gross negligence manslaughter exists in the situation whereby an individual has committed a legal act in such a way so as to render the actions criminal.

What needs to be proven to establish gross negligence manslaughter?

The following things need to be proven to establish gross negligence manslaughter:

  • That the defendant owed a duty of care to the victim
  • That there was a breach in this duty by the defendant
  • That the breach of the duty was the cause of death
  • The defendant’s conduct was so bad in all the circumstances as to amount, in the opinion of the jury, to a crime

Can this be found in cases involving drug dealers?

In a recent case involving the supply of drugs it has been held that an individual can be guilty of gross negligence manslaughter.

What were the details of this case?

In this case the victim was a known drug addict. The defendant in the case was her half sister. The defendant obtained drugs from a drug dealer on behalf of the victim and then supplied the drugs to the victim.

Subsequently the victim suffered an overdose and eventually died. The defendant in this case was held to have committed gross negligence manslaughter.

Was an appeal heard in this case?

The Court of Appeal heard the appeal in this case and held that the defendant owed a duty of care to the victim to seek help for her. The duty in this case was to counteract the situation which the defendant had themselves created by supplying the drugs. The appeal in this case was thus dismissed.

What can we draw from these cases?

Following these cases we can see that in the situation whereby a person dies taking drugs the supplier of those drugs cannot be guilty of unlawful act manslaughter. However, they can be guilty of gross negligence manslaughter if they fail to counteract the situation which they have created.