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.

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For more information on:

  • What does this tell us about unlawful act manslaughter?
  • Gross Negligence Manslaughter
  • What is meant by gross negligence manslaughter?
  • What needs to be proven to establish gross negligence manslaughter?
  • Can this be found in cases involving drug dealers?
  • What were the details of this case?
  • Was an appeal heard in this case?
  • What can we draw from these cases?