My son Ben was 20 years old and studying film when he died of a preventable drug overdose. Ben, who was first exposed to opioids through prescription pain pills following a skateboarding accident when he was a teenager, had struggled with an opioid use disorder for two years and had spent less than two months at an in-patient treatment facility when he walked out of the facility against clinical advice. The next day, he overdosed and was put on life support before dying a week later.
At first, I was filled with anger over Ben’s death. He was with three friends when he overdosed, and none of them called for help. Ben didn’t have to die.
Today, I still believe that Ben didn’t have to die, but I also recognize that it wasn’t heroin that ultimately caused my son’s death, it was fear of incarceration — the very threat that a new bill by Orange County state Sen. Tom Umberg promises to levy against more people.
Initially, our son’s death was investigated as a homicide, due to the circumstances surrounding his overdose. However, on completion of the post-mortem, I was informed by law enforcement that Ben’s death was an accident. I was told that my son had made a choice that night; he was not forced to take heroin against his will. Ben purchased an illicit substance, allowed a third party to inject him with it, and consequently suffered a fatal overdose. It was a tragic accident, but it was not murder.
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It is true that his friends made a series of poor choices that night, but it was never their intent to kill our son. When he overdosed, Ben was three minutes from a fire station and just a mile from our home in Rancho Santa Margarita. Instead of calling 911, his friends removed our son’s body from the car along with any evidence that could place Ben there.
“How could they do this,” I asked? Now I know that they did it out of fear.
One of the people Ben was with was in a drug diversion program and was afraid of calling 911 and being sent back to jail. If it is passed, Sen. Umberg’s Senate Bill 44 would undoubtedly put more people in this situation and lead to more unnecessary overdose deaths.
According to Sen. Umberg’s office, SB 44 offers an approach “that first warns and then punishes” people for murder who sell fentanyl if it results in someone’s death. But the bill ignores all the science related to substance use. People who are suffering from substance use disorders buy drugs together, sell to one another, and if someone dies, it is not intentional. It is not murder.
To threaten more people with murder convictions will convince people who use drugs and who witness an overdose that they are not safe to call 911, just as happened with my son.
I urge California lawmakers to reject this proposal.
Increasing access to the opioid antidote naloxone is the most practical and proven solution to reduce opioid-related deaths. Doing so will ensure that we can keep people alive until they’re ready to get help and get well.
Had the three people who were with Ben at the time of his overdose not been afraid of calling 911 or had they carried naloxone, Ben might still be here today.
Aimee Dunkle is the executive director of the Solace Foundation of Orange County, a nonprofit that has distributed 46,000 doses of naloxone and recorded over 2,500 overdose reversals in Orange County. Aimee also serves on the board of Broken No More, an organization formed by families and friends who have lost a loved one to overdose.