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Who’s to blame in drug-related death — dealer or addict?

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (News4Utah) Federal prosecutors in Utah are now charging drug dealers with overdose deaths.

The punishment is up to life in prison but a defense attorney argues an overdose isn’t homicide. 

On Thursday, the US Attorney for the District of Utah amended an indictment of an alleged drug dealer for an overdose death in 2016. It’s the second time since pressure from the Justice Department to aggressively prosecute those contributing to the opioid epidemic.

When DEA agents suited up to raid Aaron Shamo’s Cottonwood Heights home in November of 2016, they were aware chemicals they believe were used to transform powdered Fentanyl into counterfeit Oxycodone and Xanax were dangerous. 

“We’re dealing with substances here that are deadly to the touch,” DEA’s Brian Besser said. 

According to the updated indictment filed Thursday, Shamo’s pills did kill on June 13, 2016. A person only identified as R.K in the indictment. 

“I think the government is trying to make a statement,” Shamo’s attorney Greg Skordas said. 

Shamo’s accused of running an opioid-drug ring that distributed more than 800,000 pills. Before now, federal prosecutors have typically shied away from charging dealers for overdose deaths.

“It is not something that you see very often. It’s not something we’ve even done historically in our country until now,” Skordas said. 

Adam Hemmelgarn and two other men face similar charges after prosecutors say they provided cyclopropyl fentanyl to a 22-year-old man who died March 14 in Weber County. If convicted, the punishment is life in prison.

That’s dramatically more than Edward Poorman, who is serving 16 months for giving a deadly dose of heroin to a Provo mother in July 2016. 

Utah Attorney General John Huber’s office declined to talk about the change in prosecution, but News4Utah discovered a document from US Attorney Jeff Sessions written on March 20, 2018. It urges federal prosecutors across the country to “consider every lawful tool” even “capital punishment”  to punish drug-related crimes. 

Regarding the opioid epidemic, it reads, “in face of all of this death, we cannot continue with business as usual.”

“I think these cases are hard to prove because it’s going to be difficult for the government to establish that this specific death was caused by some transaction by these young people in Cottonwood Heights, Utah years ago,” Skordas said. 

Shamo’s trial is scheduled for mid-January.

Other states have found success convicting drug dealers in these cases. West Virginia, Florida and Minnesota have all prosecuted people in overdose deaths.  

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