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Death due to a drugs overdose

“Drug Suppliers Should Be Liable For Manslaughter When They Supply Drugs To A Person Who Dies As A Result Of The Consumption Of Those Drugs.”


Death due to a drugs overdose has several preceding conditions but the two rival circumstances would be the supply of drugs by a dealer and the voluntary act of the deceased to consume the drugs, they are both events but for which the person would not be dead. The courts have struggled to explain the basis on who should be guilty of manslaughter. In Sinclair a duty might arise where a close friend of a drug addict bought, paid for and supplied for drugs and then remained with the victim when they were unconscious. The duty of care is significant.

Therefore we must ask; when a drug user takes drugs from a supplier and dies, what is the liability of the drug supplier? The question is one of causation, does supplying the drugs cause death?  Provided the drug supplier does not help the user take the drugs it would appear not.

Causation is the causal relationship between conduct and result. In Environment Agency v Empress Car Company Ltd  it was established that in fact the chain of causation could not be broken by the voluntary act of the victim as a novus actus interveniens when that action would be an ‘ordinary occurrence’ as opposed to an ‘extraordinary’ occurrence .

This brings me onto the discussion of whether “drug suppliers should be liable for manslaughter when they supply drugs to a person who dies as a result of the consumption of those drugs.” Any person injecting another with heroin (whether or not they have requested them to do so) is guilty of administering ‘a noxious thing’, contrary to s.23 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA 1861). There is doubt about the degree to which someone less directly helping a user to inject might also be liable and this is an area that would benefit from clarification.

If a person directly injects another with heroin unlawfully and death of a person results, the injector may be guilty of manslaughter. Moreover, if a person assists in the injection process of another, they may also be liable for manslaughter. The main issue here is the causal relationship between drug suppliers and their victims who overdose. A good example of this is the case of Evans. The case concerned an appeal from X who, along with her own mother, had been convicted of manslaughter by gross negligence of her step-sister who died from a heroin overdose. The main question did X owe a duty? Blood relationship was not of the greatest importance. X was found to be an intermediary in supply of drugs which gave raise to duty to care and was under plain and obvious duty to provide assistance to her sister (both in law and fact).

R v Cato established that the injection of others was a criminal offence and that active participation in injuring others should not, as a matter of public policy, be condoned. The appellant purchased some heroin. They each prepared their own solution and then paired off to inject each other. Farmer prepared his own solution and the appellant injected him. This was repeated during the night. The following day Farmer was found dead. The appellant was convicted of manslaughter and administering a noxious thing under s.23 OAPA 1861. It was held that there had been an unlawful act which had caused death. However, Lord Widgery went further, saying that they would have used unlawful possession as a substitute to s.23. This is obviously damaging to principles of causation in that actual possession cannot be considered to have caused the death, it would be one of these incidental factors. Furthermore, the case law under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 precludes any alternative, for instance the supply of drugs interpretation. R v Maginnis  and R v Harris established that it would be a unreasonable situation that where a person was merely insisting with the injection that it could not be considered supply.

However, Lord Widgery CJ’s observations lead to confusion in the law. Lord Widgery stated that due to the possibility of being able to rely on the unlawful act of administering a noxious thing, the defendant would nonetheless be liable as he had committed the unlawful act of possession. The difficulty being that possession of drugs does not in itself cause death, so is it right for him to be convicted of manslaughter?

In R v Dalby it was recognised that the possession or supply of drugs did not cause death. The appellant had supplied Stefan O’Such, with Diconal tablets. Both had injected themselves. O’Such subsequently met a friend who helped him to administer intravenous injections of an unspecified substance to himself. O’Such then went home where he fell asleep. An attempt to wake him the next day was unsuccessful. Dalby was prosecuted for manslaughter and convicted on the basis that his supply of the Diconal tablets was an unlawful and dangerous act which caused the death of O’Such. His conviction for manslaughter was quashed. The supply of drugs was not the cause of death. It was the deceased’s act of injecting himself which was the direct cause of death. The court decided that ‘Where the charge of manslaughter is based on an unlawful and dangerous act, it must be an act directed at the victim and likely to cause immediate injury’.

However, in the succeeding case of R v Dias it was pointed out that it is not a crime to inject oneself. Dias was correct and it was artificial and unreal to separate the application of the tourniquet from the injection. The purpose and effect of the tourniquet, plainly, was to raise a vein in which the deceased could inject themselves.

In Richards the conviction was quashed as it was based on the law as stated in Kennedy’s first appeal. The rule was applied from Dias where it was an unlawful act to self-inject the drug and that assisting that act constituted a sufficient unlawful act for the offence of manslaughter.

Following the case of Rodgers, the unlawful act was his assisting in the administration of the drug and thus amounted to an offence under s.23. In Rogers it was held that the application of the tourniquet was “part and parcel of the unlawful act of administering heroin” and D was playing a part in the procedure of the injection which caused death, therefore, there was an unlawful act.  It was immaterial whether the deceased was committing a criminal offence.

Though on appeal, the House confirmed the decision in Dias and held that it is never appropriate to convict a person of manslaughter, where he supplies a class A drug to a fully informed and responsible adult who then freely and voluntarily self administers the drug.

The issue appears to have been finally resolved by the House of Lords in R v Kennedy, A man V asked D to supply him with heroin, who both lived in a hostel. D filled a syringe and gave it to V, who injected himself; to which he consequentially died. The answer to the question ‘When is it appropriate to find someone guilty of manslaughter where that person has been involved in the supply of a class A controlled drug, which is then freely and voluntarily self-administered by the person to whom it was supplied, and the administration of the drug then causes his death?’ was: ‘In a case where the deceased was a fully-informed and responsible adult, never’. The Lords made clear that a person who supplies a drug to a person, who then injects themselves and dies, cannot be liable for the unlawful act manslaughter. There is a crucial break in the chain of causation by the independent action of the deceased to inject themselves.

Therefore, I deem that such persons should not be liable for either manslaughter or for a special offence but should be treated more as victims of their addiction than criminal killers. Waller LJ in Dalby says, “the difficulty in the present case is that the act of supplying a scheduled drug was not an act which caused direct harm. It was an act which made it possible, or even likely, that harm would occur subsequently, particularly if the drug was supplied to somebody who was on drugs … the supply of drugs would itself have caused no harm unless the deceased had subsequently used the drugs in a form and quantity which was dangerous.” As there is no offence of self-manslaughter, it is difficult to see how the appellant could be guilty of that offence. For the policy reasons drug suppliers ought to be labelled and punished as drug suppliers not as manslaughters, the drug-taker’s actions should normally be regarded as voluntary unless it was not free and informed because of age, mental condition or improper pressure or influence.

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