On May 9, 2014, Emma Semler, then a teenager, shot up heroin with her friend, Jenny Werstler, in a West Philadelphia KFC bathroom. The former made it out alive. The latter did not.
A little over five years later to the day, Semler was sentenced to more than two decades behind bars for distribution of heroin resulting in death after she physically handed Werstler the baggie that would lead to her overdose. The charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. Semler received 21 years’ imprisonment, along with six years’ supervised release and a $2,500 fine.
A federal court reversed that this week, vacating Semler’s conviction and sentence.
The distribution charge and its mandatory punishment are both rooted in the war on drugs and meant to zero in on dealers. But Semler found herself caught up in its dragnet because she passed the heroin to Werstler, who had asked for it—an absurdly literal reading of the law, and a reminder of the far-reaching implications of well-meaning attempts to crack down on drug use.
“Turning to a plain reading of the statute, we are not persuaded by the government’s sweeping interpretation,” wrote Circuit Judge Jane Richards Roth of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. “The government would have us believe that if two drug addicts jointly and simultaneously purchase methamphetamine and return home to smoke it together, a ‘distribution’ has occurred each time the addicts pass the pipe back and forth to each other. Such an interpretation diverts punishment from traffickers to addicts, who contribute to the drug trade only as end users and who already suffer disproportionally from its dangerous effects.”
As teenagers, Werstler and Semler first met at a Delaware County rehab center. They both relapsed, and in 2014, on Werstler’s 20th birthday, she contacted Semler via Facebook Messenger for help purchasing heroin. Semler responded that she did not have a car. Werstler did, but asked if Semler could furnish a syringe and water bottle for the injection, and if she could borrow $10 to buy the heroin. Semler obliged.
Semler’s sister, who was also present that evening, testified that she could not remember who actually completed the purchase.
But that didn’t necessarily matter, because it was Semler who physically passed off the drug to Werstler when the three entered that KFC bathroom. All shot up independently. Werstler then requested a second injection to celebrate her birthday, after which point she began to overdose. The two sisters threw cold water on her and attempted to revive her but eventually exited the building and did not call 911.
The case is nauseating, and no serious person could argue that the Semler sisters displayed anything approaching human decency when they fled KFC and left Werstler there to die. But perhaps it’s the tough-on-crime, drug-warrior statutes—like the one Emma Semler was convicted under—that discourage such people from calling for help when those situations go miserably awry.
That wasn’t lost on Richards Roth, who was nominated to the bench by former President Ronald Reagan. “Indeed, the threat of harsh penalties in any joint-use situation could jeopardize addicts’ safety even more by deterring them from using together specifically so that one can intervene if another overdoses,” she said. “Moreover, given the prevalence of shared drug use, a too-broad construction of ‘transfer’ risks arbitrary enforcement.”
Whether or not she intended it to be, the above excerpt is broadly applicable to drug enforcement—and the ways in which it backfires—writ large. Black markets incentivize many things. Safety is not among them. Common, however, are upticks in crime and violence, as users cannot litigate anything out in the open, and even more dangerous strains, which proliferate without any quality control. Overzealous enforcement often leaves addicts resigned to lengthy periods in cages. Those individuals are more likely to suffer from severe mental health issues, perhaps the reason why some started using drugs in the first place.
Semler was an addict, though she is not any longer, having gotten sober a year after Werstler’s death. Prior to her conviction, she worked as a marketer for a drug rehab center in New Jersey and sponsored several other young women who struggle with similar issues. Even so, until this week, she was doomed to sit behind bars for the next several decades—a harsher sentence than the maximum Pennsylvania allows for third-degree murder, though Werstler freely chose to take those drugs that evening.
That doesn’t change the fact that Semler should have called for help. It’s not far-fetched to assume she was discouraged from doing so for fear that the state would nail her for her drug use. She wasn’t wrong.