Violating the tenets of both reason and compassion, the Rhode Island House of Representatives approved Kristen’s Law on Thursday, a bill sponsored by Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston) to strengthen penalties for dealers who sell fatal drug doses.
Governor Gina Raimondo has indicated that she is inclined to sign Kristen’s Law if it passes, despite the opposition of her Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force’s expert advisor, Dr Jodi Rich.
The bill (2018-H 7715Aaa), which now goes to the Senate, specifies that any person convicted of unlawfully selling illicit substances that result in a person’s death shall be sentenced to up to life in prison.
“Our state is in the midst of a very serious opioid epidemic, much of which is fueled by powerful fentanyl that is being mixed, unbeknownst to the user, with other drugs,” said Mattiello. “People are dying on a regular basis here in Rhode Island from lethal drugs that, in many cases, they never intended to take. Kristen’s Law is to serve as a strong deterrent to dealers by holding them accountable for profiting from this deadly scourge. It is one element of the multi-faceted effort to address this complicated crisis, and it gives law enforcement a tool they need to do their part.”
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During public testimony on the bill in the House judiciary Committee back in April, expert after expert testified against the bill.
“This legislation, although well-intentioned, will only lead to more of our family members, friends and loved ones being removed from our lives before they themselves could achieve recovery,” said Lisa Peterson, an expert on drug addiction.
“While we understand that the intentions behind the proposed legislation are to address the overdose epidemic that has killed too many people in Rhode Island, we feel that the bill as it currently stands will be counterproductive: It will hurt the same people it claims to help,” said Annajane Yolken, Executive Director of Protect Families First. “Simply stated: Revenge is not the answer to this crisis.”
“Being a survivor of overdose, hearing a bill like this, if I were the person holding that plunger to my arm, I would tell my friends to back away and leave,” said Michael Galipeau, president of the Rhode Island User’s Union. “Whatever happens may happen, do not call the police, because I do not want any of my friends to go to jail for life for my decision. I think there are many users that understand this, and I think there is no way to implement an overt policy like this without generating significant fear among an already highly impacted and stigmatized community.”
Journalist D“not only do absolutely no good, but it will also cause profound harm.”
Other experts have also spoken about Kristen’s Law:
“It sounds very simple. People are using. People are selling other people these toxic, dangerous fentanyl-like compounds, and those people are taking them and not expecting to, but dying. So why don’t we just make that illegal, and make the penalties so severe that people will not do that and then the problem will go away? It sounds simple,” said Dr Jody Rich, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and expert advisor to Governor Gina Raimondo‘s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force. “Unfortunately, it’s just not simple.”
“I’m with the rest of the people up here it terms of understanding that the bill as written is not the bill we need,” said Dr Michael Fine, family medicine doctor and former director of the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH). “We need to be thinking about how to value the lives of all Rhode Islanders…”
Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott, Raimondo’s RIDOH Director, has been publicly silent on the bill.
There was a two hour, sometimes heated floor debate, as legislators debated the efficacy of continuing and expanding the war on drugs, a policy that has failed throughout the United States for decades.
Here is the video in full:
Rep. Moira Walsh speaking against Kristen’s Law. “This bill represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the opioid epidemic.” pic.twitter.com/nXUTp1XTZM
— Steph Machado (@StephMachado) June 14, 2018
“We join with the medical and recovery community in lamenting the passage of this legislation,” writes the ACLU of Rhode Island in a statement. “The failed, punitive War on Drugs has for far too long ignored the realities of drug addiction and the stranglehold the disease has on too many people. The vote by the House of Representatives today undermines the life-saving efforts of doctors and recovery counselors to keep people alive long enough to get treatment, and prioritizes incarceration over survival. We call on Governor Gina Raimondo to hear the concerns of the doctors, counselors, and addiction survivors and veto this legislation.”
Mattiello introduced the legislation at the request of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. It is named for Kristen Coutu of Cranston, who died as a result of a deadly dose of fentanyl in 2014. Aaron Andrade, the dealer who sold nearly pure fentanyl to her in what was supposed to be a dose of heroine, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in her death, becoming the first Rhode Island drug dealer convicted of murder in connection with an overdose death.
Andrade was sentenced to 40 years for his part in Coutu’s death. Why then does the Speaker and the Attorney General believe that Kristen’s Law is needed?
Rhode Island does not currently have the necessary statute to address all instances of unlawful drug deliveries that result in death. The only provisions of the General Laws that may be applicable to a drug delivery death resulting are first-degree felony murder and second-degree murder, which do not always apply.
Under the bill, controlled substance delivery resulting in death would be a new charge available to prosecutors, although a similar statute already exists for those who provide lethal drugs to minors.
The bill was amended to clarify that its intent is to hold drug traffickers accountable, in order to address concerns that those suffering with substance use disorders would be subject to criminal prosecution. The fact that low level drug traffickers are often indistinguishable from those suffering with substance use disorders did not persuade legislators interested in looking tough on crime in an election year.
The amendment also made it clear that the Good Samaritan law shall be applicable to the section, meaning that individuals who seek medical assistance for someone experiencing a controlled substance overdose shall not be charged or prosecuted for violations of the section, if the evidence for the charge was gained as a result of the seeking of medical assistance.
An additional amendment was added today to clarify that the statute applies to those who sell drugs, not individuals who shared drugs with the victim.
The Rhode Island Senate has approved companion legislation (S2279A) sponsored by Senator Hanna Gallo (Democrat, District 27, Cranston, West Warwick).
Protect Families First, an advocacy group that has been battling passage of Kristen’s Law, writes:
“On behalf of the medical, public health, and recovery communities, we are very disappointed in the House of Representative’s vote tonight to pass Kristen’s Law (H7715A/S2279A). This ‘revenge’ bill endangers public health efforts to effectively address the overdose crisis, doubling down on ineffective and costly efforts. We extend our gratitude to the legislators who raised their concerns about this legislation. We encourage the governor to stand with the medical, public health, and recovery communities to veto this bill.”
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