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Not Everyone Wants Murder Charges For Drug Dealers

Heroin syringe
Thomas Martinsen
Flickr/Creative Commons

State lawmakers have introduced a bill that would implement stiffer penalties for people who distribute drugs that result in another person's death.

At the center of this issue is the national opioid epidemic, and a recent surge in opiate overdose deaths in North Carolina. In recent years state lawmakers have tried to respond to the crisis by issuing new prescribing guidelines for doctors and making overdose reversal medication more widely available to the public, among other changes.

Now, they're turning some of their attention to distributors.

"The prosecutor has to have the tools to react appropriately case by case and try to reach the right result," said Senator Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg).

Opioid related Emergency Department visits.
Credit N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

He's sponsoring a bill that would give district attorneys greater discretion to charge people with second degree murder for "death by distribution." Bishop said there are a lot of people engaged in passing the substances along, and causing harm.

"You got a lot of bad people who are engaged in passing the substances along that cause this harm," said Bishop. "And they're preying on people like these victims. So you don't want to have Good Samaritan immunity sweep so broadly that you cannot punish; the law provides no deterrent, no opportunity, to punish people who are victimizers."

At a Senate committee hearing Tuesday, New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David gave an impassioned speech, telling those in attendance that the drug distributors need to go to prison for as long as possible, and warning legislators not to conflate the war on drugs with the war on drug dealers.

That small meeting room was filled to capacity. Also on hand were also harm reduction advocates, family members of overdose victims, and some substance abusers. They voiced opposition to the bill, and raised questions, including: What constitutes a distributor? Why aren't doctors subject to more severe punishments? Could this deter people from calling 911 in an emergency?

"Death by distribution will kill the Good Samaritan laws. And more kids will die," said Mary Stansell, in an interview following the hearing. Stansell is a former district attorney turned public defender, as well as a mom who has seen addiction first-hand. Her daughter overdosed while in college, and is now in recovery. Her step-son died from an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl.

"Politically it sounds good. It's aimed at tough on crime, which is great. It's aimed at drug dealers, by the legislative intent. The unintended consequences are what they need to listen to," she continued.

Bishop, the lawmaker, says he is listening, and wants to find a middle ground. The bill is scheduled for further debate in a Senate Committee Wednesday.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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