North Dakota’s Drug Immunity Laws Are Pointless if the Feds Can Prosecute Those Cases Anyway


Fargo Police vehicles blocked off traffic on 25th Street south of Main Avenue Saturday after a report of a man with a gun. An ambulance arrived at the scene after the man shot himself in the head. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Back during their 2015 session North Dakota lawmakers passed a bill which gives some legal immunity to people who overdose on drugs who are seeking medical attention and those helping them.

The idea, and it’s a very good one, is to prioritize saving a life over padding drug arrest statistics.

Only the law isn’t working exactly as advertised. Reporter Dave Olson wrote an article for the Fargo Forum recently about an overdose situation which resulted in arrests and convictions.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]A state immunity law accomplishes exactly nothing when the federal authorities can step in and prosecute a case despite it.[/mks_pullquote]

Because the law doesn’t apply to “dealers,” a term defined to broadly it can include people sharing drugs with friends, and because no state law granting immunity can stop federal prosecutors from pushing ahead with charges.

Most of the discussion following Olson’s article has focused on the former issue with the law – Fargo Police Chief David Todd took exception to the Forum’s reporting, and defense attorney Brian Toay responded to him in a column of his own – but it’s the latter which seems like the real bugaboo to me.

A state immunity law accomplishes exactly nothing when the federal authorities can step in and prosecute a case despite it. That’s what happened in the situation Olson wrote about. The two individuals who tried to save their friend’s life ended up with jail sentences handed out by the federal courts.

Remember that state and federal law enforcement work very closely together on issues like drugs though regional task forces and the like. It is all too easy for state-level law enforcement to tip off the feds about a drug case they themselves are restrained by law from pursuing.

The state immunity law is supposed to give drug abusers, and those helping them, a safe harbor so that they will seek medical attention if they need it. But that “harbor” is not safe from the federal government.

I hope North Dakota lawmakers do their best to fix this law – it really is good policy the aforementioned issues – but we’re going to need a shift in attitudes at the federal level for it to matter all that much.