25 Investigates: Should drug dealers tied to overdose deaths serve life in prison?

DEDHAM — A Massachusetts state lawmaker says the Commonwealth needs more tools to effectively prosecute dealers tied to fatal overdoses as a growing number of lives are being lost to the synthetic opiate, fentanyl.

“It started with prescription pain medication, then regressed to heroin, and now it’s regressed to fentanyl 50 times stronger than heroin. And it’s killing people left and right in our communities. And I think something has to be done,” said Massachusetts state Senator Patrick O’Connor says his legislation is going after those selling fentanyl in communities across the Commonwealth.

The ‘Act Relative to Drug Induced Homicide’ says anyone who “knowingly or intentionally” manufactures, distributes, dispenses, or delivers any amount of a class a substance which results in death could serve up to “life in prison”.

“If a murder is directly linked to an individual that is not themselves suffering from addiction, but an individual who’s determined by our district attorneys to be a mid to large level fentanyl dealer, that there should be some tool that those district attorneys have to prosecute those individuals,” O’Connor said.

For months 25 Investigates has been showing you how law enforcement has been targeting fentanyl on the streets. We told you about the dangerous synthetic opiate that’s being mixed into fake prescription pills and other drugs. And, the surging sale of them in social media chats.

The powerful drug is claiming lives across the state. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in the first six months of 2022 there were 1,043 opioid-related overdose deaths where a toxicology screen was also available. Fentanyl was present in 94% of them. Compare that with prescription opioids in 11% and heroin in 7%.

O’Connor, a Southshore Republican, says this bill won’t seek to punish anyone with their own substance abuse disorder.

“We’re not looking to criminalize addiction at all,” he told anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh. “We specifically spell it out in the bill that rehabilitation and substance use treatment is always going to be the first option.”

We reached out to Massachusetts Attorney General, Andrea Campbell. A spokesperson from her office told 25 Investigates they are aware of this bill.

“Attorney General Campbell believes any solution to the opioid crisis requires collaboration between health care experts, advocacy organizations, elected officials, law enforcement, the community and people with lived experience. Currently our office’s New England Fentanyl Strike Force works with federal, state and local law enforcement partners to stop the trafficking of illegal opioids. Our office is aware of this bill and in the process of reviewing all legislation filed this session.”

In January, the state says they arrested and arraigned a Boston man after a takedown by the Strike Force that recovered 522 grams of fentanyl and $20,000 in cash at an Andover stash house.

“Do you think your bill has a shot in the state of Massachusetts,” Kavanaugh asked O’Connor.

“I do,” O’Connor said. “I understand, we’re in a very progressive state that really focuses on criminal justice reform, restorative justice, and I support those causes. But at the same time we do that, I believe that there can be a separate conversation parallel to that that goes on to talk about what do we do about this massive problem we have with fentanyl right now that’s impacting every single community across the Commonwealth and that people are dying every single day from it.”

O’Connor says 23 other states have taken steps to tie deadly overdoses to the dealers, including Rhode Island which he says his bill closely mirrors. It does not call for a mandatory minimum sentence. The bill does call for a commission to be formed to annually examine the cases that fall under this law to make sure it’s not being used improperly or disproportionately.

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