New bill would set tougher punishments for drug dealers if substance causes death

“If you’re dealing drugs, you have the chance to basically be charged with murder,” says Rep. Carson Smith
Updated: May. 6, 2019 at 4:16 PM EDT
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NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - A bill that would create harsher punishments for a person who distributes drugs that result in the user’s death has passed in the state house.

The vote was 83 to 34. The measure now heads to the state senate.

Called the Death by Distribution bill, it would create two new charges, according to Rep. Carson Smith of House District 16 (Columbus, Pender counties). Carson is one of the primary sponsors of the bill.

The new charges would result in tougher punishments without requiring proof of malice from those who distribute drugs, including opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine, and more.

“The big thing is this allows prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to charge somebody who has distributed a substance that killed somebody without malice," said Smith.

If a person does not have certain prior drug convictions, they would be charged with death by distribution of certain controlled substances, a Class C felony, according to Smith. If a person does have certain prior drug convictions, they would be charged with aggravated death by distribution of certain controlled substances, a Class B2 felony, which is the same level as second degree murder.

Smith, who served as sheriff of Pender County, said it was difficult to charge distributors with second degree murder because it required proof of malice.

“If this becomes law, there will be more people charged with the death of people who they distribute drugs to,” said Smith. “If you’re dealing drugs, you have the chance to basically be charged with murder.”

Death by Distribution was included in the 2017 HOPE Act, but lawmakers eliminated it after pushback from advocates, according to North Carolina Health News.

Don Flattery lost his only son 26-year-old Kevin to an opioid overdose in September 2014. He’s become an advocate for fighting addiction, and said the new charges in the Death by Distribution bill could be a step in the right direction.

“I think the potential to save dozens of lives exists if we can take that dealer off the streets, but I do acknowledge there could be an occasional loss of life because someone isn’t willing to make a Good Samaritan call,” said Flattery.

Flattery said he believes a public health approach should be the number one strategy to fighting drug overdose deaths, but he also believes empowering authorities should be part of the solution.

“Strategies to overcome should mostly come from the public health side. Having said that, with the arrival of fentanyl and the dramatic increase overdose deaths attributable to fentanyl, both nationally and in the state of North Carolina, I think that’s a game changer. And I think that this bill will give law enforcement and the judiciary additional tools the intentional and willful selling of fentanyl and fentanyl analogs," said Flattery.

RELATED: Fatal drug overdoses rising in N.C. faster than 48 other states, fentanyl partly to blame

Flattery said he does not believe there is data to prove these new charges in the bill would save lives, but he said more must be done.

“Despite a lot of very good things occurring to save lives, get people in treatment, expand access to naloxone, the HOPE act, the STOP act in North Carolina, despite all those very good things, we are still seeing an explosion in deaths and the death rate," said Flattery.

Virgil Hayes, the advocacy and program manager for the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, said he believes these new charges will not help solve the opioid epidemic.

“I think it’s a very knee-jerk reaction to a very serious public health issue,” said Hayes.

According to Hayes, tougher punishments would further deter people from calling 911, especially because proving malice is not required in the new charges.

“It could charge people who shouldn’t be charged,” said Hayes. “If someone is struggling with addiction, I would argue they need recovery and treatment, not a prison cell.”

A number of low level drug dealers also struggle with addiction, said Hayes.

“Drug-induced homicide laws don’t work," Hayes said. "They are a terrible solution to a very serious public health issue.”

Since the measure was initially introduced, the legislation has seen a few changes. The latest version of the bill passed Monday makes it clear that the new law will not apply to the valid prescription of medications by doctors or the dispensing, delivering or administering of drugs by pharmacists or individual practitioners, Rep. Smith says.

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