Bill to stiffen drug penalties, aimed at fentanyl epidemic and overdoses, faces Alaska House vote

    Members of the Alaska House, in a long floor sesson on Wednesday, debate the value of stiffening drug-law penalities in the face of increasing fentanyl overdose deaths. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

    Juneau, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) - The bill would reclassify drug-overdose deaths as second-degree murders, lengthen drug sentences and address use of ‘date-rape’ drugs.

    Spurred by the state’s sharp increase in fentanyl-overdose deaths, the Alaska Legislature is considering a bill that would make those who supply the drug subject to potential second-degree murder charges in cases that lead to death.

    The measure, House Bill 66, was introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who used part of his Jan. 23 State of the State address to discuss his intention to increase penalties for anyone “who sells poison that results in the death of anyone.”

    The bill is expected to reach a final vote in the House on Thursday and, if approved, would then be sent to the Senate for consideration.

    The reclassification to second-degree murder for those seen at fault for drug-overdose deaths would apply to all controlled substances where use causes fatalities, though discussion of the bill has focused on fentanyl. That powerful opioid has driven Alaska’s overdose death rate, which increased in 2021 more than that of any other state. Up to now, the charge associated with overdose deaths has been manslaughter.

    Additionally, the bill would establish the dosing of most controlled substances to unknowing or incapacitated people as a first-degree felony. The provision is aimed at use of so-called “date-rape” drugs like Rohypnol and ketamine that diminish victims’ mental or physical defenses and put them at greater risk of assault.

    The bill also includes provisions that lengthen jail terms for certain drug offenses and clarify differences between delivery of controlled substances to minors and delivery to adults. The bill went through several alterations between Dunleavy’s introduction and the amendment debates that took up the majority of time in a five-hour House floor session on Wednesday.

    In the House Judiciary Committee, members added a provision that would have barred people convicted of drug-related offenses from getting early release from prison, a reward for good behavior that is known as “good time” and that is typically applicable in crime cases, with some exceptions. The House Finance Committee removed that addition.

    During the floor session, there was spirited debate over the value of lengthened prison terms and other penalties.

    “If we’re going to go to war on drugs, it has to be clear. It has to be harsh. And hopefully it has to be short-term,” said Rep. Mike Prax, R-Fairbanks. “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right and not do it halfway.”

    “I’m appalled that anybody in this chamber would want to be soft on crime,” said Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River.

    But other members argued against what they characterized as a counterproductive and overly punitive approach.

    Those who “deliver” drugs are not necessarily money making dealers but are often addicts themselves, they said.

    Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage, urged “nuance” in state policy toward addiction. The prospects of long prison terms are unlikely to prevent people from abusing drugs, she said. “Consequences don’t really go through their minds when they’re using,” she said.

    Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna and a pharmacist, cautioned against what he described as an overly simplistic approach to coping with Alaska’s drug-abuse problems. He cited the effects on the brain of dopamine and how it drives addiction. “This is a problem that sometimes penalties alone will not dissuade,” he said.

    Those who make their livings off of selling drugs, even if caught, will be replaced with new waves of suppliers, he said, and he recommended that members read “Dreamland,” a book about the nation’s opioid problems. The book describes  “why it is impossible to lock up enough people to stop the drug trade. Impossible. It will continue to happen over and over and over again until we have other things that we decide to take care of from a systemic perspective.”

    Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage, was among those who argued that denying the opportunity for early release would make it less likely that prisoners would work to address their addictions. He referred to some former prisoners who testified to the House Judiciary Committee. “They said specifically that the incentive of getting released from prison earlier is what drove them to actively participate in their drug treatment. And they left prison sober, and they’ve remained sober because of that incentive,” Gray said.

    The Alaska bill fits with a national pattern of states stiffening penalties for fentanyl possession and distribution.

    Family members of overdose-death victims have supported the bill, but the ACLU of Alaska and others take issue with the increased penalties.

    At a news conference later in the day, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said he intends to vote for the bill in its final form and believes it will pass. But he said the focus on the criminal aspects has shortcomings.

    “It’s easy to do the crime-law part. It’s much harder to do the human part at the beginning before the problems arise,” he said at the news conference.

    Other fentanyl-related bills pending in the legislature are House Bill 6, a measure that would require a 60-minute opioid awareness education curriculum for secondary school students and a relatively new bill introduced by the governor, Senate Bill 133, and identical House Bill 171, that would establish an opioid remediation fund with the state’s share of money from legal settlements with manufacturers of the drugs.

    The opioid education bill was heard in a March 2 hearing of the House Health and Social Services Committee but has not advanced since then; the governor’s legislation, introduced in late April, was referred to both House and Senate finance committees but had not been heard in either as of Wednesday.

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