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3 Tennessee Teens Overdosed and 2 Died. Now the Survivor Is Charged With Murder.

Overdose deaths continue to rise, but harm reduction advocates say criminalizing drug use won’t save lives.

A sign reading "Overdose prevention centers SAVE LIVES" is displayed against a green marble background at the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York, on January 31, 2023.

An estimated 109,680 people died of a drug overdose in 2022. Police and policy makers at all levels of government spent billions of dollars over the past decade attempting to contain this crisis, but 2022 saw the highest death toll on record, with fatalities exceeding 100,000 for the second year in a row.

Social stigma and police push drug use out of view. Every death is a human being and their story, a dark space where personal tragedy and public policy collide. On May 16, tragedy and policy met in rural Fayette County, Tennessee, where a high school student survived a drug overdose only to be charged with the murder of her friends, according to local reports.

Earlier this week, three teens, ages 16 and 17, overdosed while getting high in the parking lot of a local high school near Somerville, Tennessee. Two did not survive, but a third was hospitalized and in stable condition as of Wednesday, according to news reports. The surviving student was charged with second-degree murder for the death of her companions.

At least one parent has suggested his daughter used cocaine that was cut with fentanyl, the synthetic opioid involved in a majority of drug deaths. Police also suspect the girls used cocaine contaminated with fentanyl. Like cocaine, fentanyl can also appear as a white powder but delivers powerful sedative effects. Police typically do not release the identities of minors, and Truthout is withholding names reported in the media out of respect for the families.

Two young people lost their lives and a third could now lose precious years of her life to the state of Tennessee, where a single counterfeit pill containing a synthetic opioid such as fentanyl can result in a murder charge if allegedly connected to an accidental overdose death. Teenagers can be tried as adults for major crimes in Tennessee, and no decision has been made about whether to charge the girl as an adult, according to NBC News. Prosecutor Mark Davidson told local media the murder charges were initially filed in juvenile court.

Jeremy Sharp, the southern regional coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a student-led group that engages young people in overdose prevention education, said it’s very likely the three girls mistakenly believed they were only sharing cocaine.

“Now her friends, her peers, they are not coming back, and she is just sitting there, and she knows she didn’t do this on purpose,” Sharp said in an interview with Truthout. “I have lost people to the exact same situation; it’s going to repeat itself until we get it right.”

Sharp added that 50 million Americans are estimated to have used cocaine, and the consequences are almost never this stiff. Sharp and other student activists distribute fentanyl test strips and teach people how to test their cocaine, a common method of harm reduction at parties and college campuses.

“This is going to happen. Death by distribution laws — it’s not a deterrence, especially for drug use,” Sharp said. “What we need are policies that promote health, and understanding that all sorts of people get into addiction, but in a small town, the resources they have are few and limited.”

Federal data show huge racial disparities in overdose deaths that advocates attribute to massive gaps in access to health care and harm reduction services. Sharp said similar disparities can be found in rural white communities, especially in the South.

The Fayette County Sheriff’s Department has not responded to a request for information. The department is investigating the incident with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

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