As she was entering the hotel to deliver the keynote at the Second Annual Community Overdose Engagement Summit in Warwick, I asked Governor Gina Raimondo if she still intends to sign Kristen’s Law.
“I do plan to sign it,” said Raimondo. “I will say it’s very difficult. After a great deal of thought I decided I am going to sign the bill. It’s not an easy call.”
I pointed out that the scientific consensus is against it. (In fact, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a letter in opposition signed by 15 organizations and 60 individuals who work in the recovery community.)
“I don’t agree with that,” said Raimondo. “I have heard from many people who are begging me to sign it, mostly parents who have lost their children…”
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“But not scientists or sociologists?” I asked.
“…and I’ve heard from many other people asking me not to. So my position is: The first thing is prevention, second thing is treatment, that’s what we’re doing here [at the Second Annual Community Overdose Engagement Summit] Under my leadership Rhode Island is a national leader in prevention and treatment. But there is a role for law enforcement, this is a crisis, I want to use all tools at our disposal. Like any legislation it can be revisited in a year or two if it has negative consequences.
“But in my judgement we have to do everything we can to save lives and I am going to sign the bill.”
We had begun our brief conversation with me asking what the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) had to say about the bill. Raimondo told me that I should go inside and ask Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott, the Director of RIDOH, for her opinion.
I had in fact just asked Dr Alexander-Scott for her opinion on Kristen’s Law. Dr Alexander-Scott told me that any opinions that RIDOH developed about the consequences off the law’s passage were for internal use only. Despite what I called the scientific consensus, that the law will do no good and cause only harm, Dr Alexander-Scott said that her department will defer to the Governor’s opinion.
— Steve Ahlquist (@steveahlquist) June 19, 2018
After my brief discussion about Kristen’s Law with Dr Alexander-Scott and subsequent tweet, I received an email from RIDOH Public Information Officer Joseph Wendelken elaborating on the Director’s brief comments.
“You heard a lot of focus on treatment this afternoo [at the Second Annual Community Overdose Engagement Summit]. That is because evidence shows that treatment programs are the most effective way to address the overdose crisis. [emphasis mine] For example, research shows that treatment programs can reduce drug use by 40 percent to 60 percent. Additionally, treatment can reduce arrests for criminal acts by 40 percent, and reduce the risk of HIV infection. Given that there are (according to estimates) more than 20,000 individuals in Rhode Island with opioid-use disorder not on medication-assisted treatment, it has been the principal focus of the Governor’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force to expand access to, and utilization of, treatment.
That being said, as you heard others express today, there is clearly a place for the involvement of law enforcement in our state’s response to this epidemic. At the Department of Health, we were encouraged that the legislation was amended to allow courts more discretion in sentencing an individual who delivers a controlled substance to an adult resulting in death. That discretion is critical. We were also pleased that Kristen’s Law was amended to include immunity for individuals who seek medical assistance for someone experiencing a controlled substance overdose. Our hope is that courts will be mindful of some of the statistics and studies that I cited above when making sentencing decisions.
In addition to the 15 organizations and 60 medical and addiction professionals who have called on the Governor to veto the bill, there are calls for a veto from many different quarters.
Rhode Island Senator Stephen Archambault (Democrat, District 22, Smithfield, Johnston, North Providence) called Kristen’s Law a “poorly crafted piece of legislation will only hurt the Rhode Islanders that need help combating addiction” and urged Governor Raimondo to veto it.
The Rhode Island Latino PAC is urging Raimondo to “intervene and veto the legislation should it reach her desk and support the sentiments expressed in a recent letter sent out from health organizations and medical professionals who advocate instead for more resources towards evidence-based treatment and not further criminalization.”
The Rhode Island Womxn’s Action Initiative has an online petition to urge Raimondo to veto the bill.
“I stand with the medical community and criminal justice advocates in opposing ‘Kristen’s Law,’ which would allow life sentences for those who sold drugs to a person that then died from using that drug,” said Raimondo’s Democratic Primary challenger Matt Brown. “Doubling down on mass incarceration is wrong and will not solve the problem. Beyond that, this law may deter people witnessing a drug overdose from calling for help – potentially leading to even more fatal drug overdoses.
“We must continue working to address the opioid crisis and the devastating effect it has had on Rhode Island families. The focus needs to be on treatment, therapy and community support.
“Governor Raimondo should veto this bill.”
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