Opponents of NC ‘death by distribution’ bill argue it would punish those who call 911

North Carolina
Heroin Photo

A proposed North Carolina law aimed at punishing dealers who supply drugs that lead to overdose deaths is facing pushback from the relatives of people who’ve died due to overdoses in recent years.

Several Republican legislators recently introduced a bill that would a new criminal charge called “death by distribution.”

State Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) said the idea is to address “a gap” in current law.

Depending on the severity of the crime, the punishment would be similar to voluntary manslaughter or second-degree murder. However, prosecutors would not have to prove intent to kill or malice.

“Chasing the objective here is important,” Bishop said. “Law must respond to it. Government must respond to that challenge, must do so though wisely and carefully.”

Dozens of people came to a Senate committee meeting Tuesday morning to lobby against the bill passing. People who’ve lost friends and relatives to drug overdoses told lawmakers they worry this approach will cause people who witness those overdoses to be reluctant to call 911 out of fear they’ll be prosecuted.

“It’s not stopping the distribution. It’s punishing someone that’s addicted themselves and need help,” said B.J. Sanders.

Sanders lost her daughter, Shelly, in 2005 to a heroin overdose. She said a man who had recently been released from prison was with her daughter at the time.

“She asked him to shoot her up with heroin. And then he did himself. And, when he woke up, she was unresponsive,” she said. “He knew he’d be put back in prison. And so he ran, and he didn’t contact the police (until) 12 hours later.”

Sanders pushed for state legislators to pass the Good Samaritan Law, which they did in 2013. It provides some protections for people who witness an overdose to report it without being prosecuted. She’s concerned the death by distribution law will undo that.

“And, when we heard this was happening, we feared the worst,” she said, adding she’s concerned the law would have unintended consequences.

Tessie Castillo, with the NC Harm Reduction Coalition, said similar laws in other states have led to friends and family members of overdose victims being prosecuted as dealers.

“They’re going to be exponentially more afraid to call 911 if they’re facing a potential murder charge,” she said. “If people actually hear about the bill on the street, all they’re going to hear is murder charges. And, they don’t know the intricacies or the ins and outs of it.”

Castillo and Sanders urged legislators to scrap the bill altogether.

Sen. Bishop said the bill could be changed in response to some of the concerns raised.

“I hear the concerns of those advocates for the addicted and we want to make sure that that is taken into careful consideration,” he said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to take the bill up again Wednesday at 2 p.m.

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