Overdose or Poisoning? A New Debate Over What to Call a Drug Death.


Fay Martin said her son, Ryan, a commercial electrician, was prescribed opioid painkillers for a work injury. When he grew dependent on them, a doctor cut off his prescription. Ryan turned to heroin. Eventually, he went into treatment and stayed sober for a time. But, ashamed of his history of addiction, he kept to himself and gradually began to use drugs again. Believing that he was buying Xanax, he died from taking a fentanyl-tainted pill in 2021, the day after his 29th birthday.

Although he, like thousands of victims, died from a counterfeit pill, his mourning mother feels as if others look at her askance.

“When my son died, I felt that stigma from people, that there was personal responsibility involved because he had been using illicit drugs,” said Ms. Martin, from Corpus Christi, Texas. “But he didn’t get what he bargained for. He didn’t ask for the amount of fentanyl that was in his system. He wasn’t trying to die. He was trying to get high.”

To a growing number of prosecutors, if someone was poisoned by fentanyl, then the person who sold the drug was a poisoner — someone who knew or should have known that fentanyl could be lethal. More states are passing fentanyl homicide laws.

Some people note that the idea of a poisoner-villain doesn’t account for the complications of drug use. “That’s a little too simplified, because a lot of people who sell substances or share them with friends are also in the throes of a substance use disorder,” said Rachael Cooper, who directs an anti-stigma initiative at Shatterproof, an advocacy group.

People who sell or share drugs are usually many steps removed from those who mixed the batches. They would likely be unaware that their drugs contained deadly quantities of fentanyl, she said.

“In a nonpoliticized world, ‘poisoning’ would be accurate, but the way it’s being used now, it is reframing what is likely an accidental event and reimagines it as an intentional crime,” said Mr. Beletsky, who directs Northeastern’s Changing the Narrative project, which examines addiction stigma.

In toxicology and medicine, “overdose” and “poison” have value-neutral definitions, said Kaitlyn Brown, the clinical managing director of America’s Poison Centers, which represents and collects data from 55 centers nationwide.

“But the public is going to understand terminology differently than people who are immersed in the field, so I think there are important distinctions and nuances that the public can miss,” she said.

“Overdose” describes a greater dose of a substance than was considered safe, Dr. Brown explained. The effect may be harmful (heroin) or not (ibuprofen).

“Poisoning” means that harm indeed occurred. But it can be a poisoning from countless substances, including lead, alcohol and food, as well as fentanyl.

Both terms are used whether an event results in survival or death.


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