RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia lawmakers are weighing steeper punishments for drug dealers after a spike in fentanyl-related deaths.

Governor Glenn Youngkin pushed for murder charges in fatal overdose cases but that effort was shot down by the Democrat-led Senate earlier this session. Now, Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) says lawmakers have reached an agreement on another bill that would classify fentanyl as a weapon of terrorism.

Under the designation, Reeves said those who “knowingly and intentionally” distribute and manufacture any mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl would be guilty of a Class 4 felony.

That could tack on up to 10 years to a prison sentence with a maximum fine of $100,000. The charge would be in addition to felony distribution of a Schedule I or II drug, which is punishable by up to 40 years.

“This is a serious drug and it’s being pushed by the Chinese through the cartels and across our border openly every day. Two thousand deaths in Virginia alone last year from this drug should wake everybody up,” Reeves said.

Reeves said Republicans compromised after Democrats balked at higher penalties, including felony homicide. Critics argued steeper punishments could over-criminalize those struggling with addiction themselves and would not deter the problem.

“We’re not going after addicts and we’re not going after users with this bill. We’re going after folks who intentionally and knowingly bring this stuff in,” Reeves said.

Kerri Rhodes’ son Taylor died of a fentanyl overdose at the age of 20. He’s among nearly 1,000 Virginians who lost their lives to the powerful, synthetic opioid in 2019, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“I knew who had supplied the drugs to him. It was someone he knew,” Rhodes said. “At first, I was so angry that I wanted him to pay. I wanted him to be locked up for the rest of his life.” 

Since then, annual deaths have more than doubled in an overdose spike that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to state data.

But Rhodes, who is now a therapist in the Chesterfield County Jail, fears increasing penalties is the wrong approach. She said a significant chunk of the convicted drug dealers she works with struggle with substance abuse too.

“Many of the men and women I work with work in here every day, they would be counted as terrorists and murderers and they’re not. They’re people who struggle with the disease of addiction,” Rhodes said. “Punishment is not the answer. The answer is to help people.”

Rhodes said lawmakers should instead prioritize more resources for treating and preventing addiction upstream, items that are included in budget proposals that are still under negotiation as the 2023 session winds down.