RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Drug dealers could be charged with murder in fatal overdose cases if Governor Glenn Youngkin gets his way, but critics have concerns about criminalizing those dealing with substance abuse disorders.
Youngkin is calling on state lawmakers to revive a bill that was vetoed by Governor Ralph Northam in 2019. At an event earlier this month, Youngkin pledged to sign it into law if it lands on his desk during the 2023 session.
“That bill could have saved lives and helped to turn the tide to some degree in the fight against opioid abuse and the runaway crisis that we have in Virginia today,” Youngkin said. “Since that bill was vetoed in May 2019, we have lost 4,702 Virginians to fentanyl overdose.”
As passed by the General Assembly, the bill said a person would be found guilty of felony homicide if they manufactured, sold, gifted or distributed certain illegal drugs that resulted in an overdose death. It paved the way for a lesser penalty if the accused could prove they shared the drugs with no intention to profit or make the deceased dependent on the substance.
Notably, the bill also said a deceased person contributing to their own death by knowingly using the controlled substance could not be used as a legal defense.
Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard, who is backing the bill alongside the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, said the change would make it much easier to successfully prosecute cases. He said the lack of clear language in the law makes it difficult to charge dealers connected to fatal overdoses with manslaughter. He said increasing the penalty to felony homicide would quadruple the maximum punishment from 10 years to up to 40 years in prison.
“I think it really puts more pressure on those who are selling it. They will realize that Virginia is getting serious,” Leonard said.
Before vetoing the bill, Northam sent back changes that were rejected by the General Assembly. Northam’s version removed references to gifting and sought to provide protections for sellers who seek help for overdose victims.
In his veto explanation, Northam said the bill would’ve made someone criminally liable for murder even if the overdose occurred days or even months after the deceased received the drugs.
“While I share the goal of addressing the opioid crisis and ensuring drug dealers are punished for supplying dangerous drugs, this bill goes beyond drug dealers and would punish individuals who are themselves struggling with addiction. The way to help individuals struggling with addiction is to ensure they receive proper treatment,” Northam furthered.
Delegate Lamont Bagby, who voted against the bill in 2019, echoed Northam’s concerns in an interview on Tuesday.
“A number of individuals who are struggling with recovery themselves are also sharing and selling drugs to support their habit, so we need to get to those underlying issues,” Bagby said.
In a recent speech, Youngkin said seven Virginians are dying from overdoses each day and five of them are from fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
Stephanie Crowder is currently recovering from a fentanyl addiction while serving at the Chesterfield County Jail. She said the recent surge of fentanyl has made it nearly impossible for heroin users to avoid.
“There is no heroin on the streets at all. It is all fentanyl,” Crowder said.
Crowder said severe withdrawal symptoms start in a matter of hours after fentanyl use and the dope sickness kept her coming back, despite the risks.
“I see girls coming in here and I just remember where I came from. They’re sweating. They’re sick. They can’t get out of bed. They can’t eat. They can’t even make a phone call because it hurts so bad and their body is screaming. It’s heartbreaking,” Crowder said. “You either have to get clean or you’re going to die.”
Crowder recently lost her son’s father to a fentanyl overdose. Whether they are struggling with substance abuse or not, she thinks dealers need to be held accountable for the growing death toll.
“They don’t care about the person that they’re selling it to or whose lives that they are ruining. They are just doing it for a dollar,” Crowder said.