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Under HB 222, dealing deadly doses of heroin, fentanyl means prison

As we've discussed on our blog before, heroin and synthetic opiates like fentanyl have created a public health crisis here in Maryland. Indeed, statistics from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene indicate that the number of heroin-related deaths jumped by at least 104 from 2013 to 2014, while the number of fentanyl-related deaths jumped by at least 119 during this same timeframe.

In order to help stop this epidemic, state lawmakers have passed multiple laws aimed squarely at combating the flow of heroin, fentanyl and prescription opiates. In fact, the Maryland General Assembly is currently considering a new measure calling for enhanced punishment for those who deal these drugs.

Specifically, House Bill 222 and its counterpart Senate Bill 303 calls for prosecutors to be given the ability to charge those dealers who sell heroin or fentanyl that causes the death of a user with homicide, a crime punishable by 30 years in prison.

The legislation also dictates that if the fatal drugs go through more than one source, all of the dealers in the supply chain could potentially be charged with homicide.

While HB 222 has the backing of multiple lawmakers and the law enforcement community, it has already generated intense criticism.

For instance, some advocacy groups are arguing that the millions of dollars in incarceration costs that would undoubtedly be needed for the measure would be better spent on already underfunded treatment programs.

Furthermore, many of these groups are concerned over the possibility of addicts who are not dealers, but who merely purchased drugs for general use being charged with murder.

"There are all these kids who, when it’s their turn to buy, purchase heroin and then give it to their friend,” said one advocate. “If that heroin is bad and the friend dies, does that kid who bought that one day deserve to be in jail for 30 years and to be called a murderer?"

While HB 222 does contain a so-called Good Samaritan measure that grants immunity to those who call 911 in the event of an overdose, at least some of its supporters have conceded that perhaps greater protection is needed in these situations.

It will be interesting to see what ultimately becomes of HB 222. Here's hoping that if it does pass, lawmakers will not lose sight of the need for the aforementioned protections or the need for more of a focus on treatment.  

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