Harford legislators propose jail time for selling drugs that kill

House Bill 612 is the second legislative crack at heroin overdose deaths, Harford delegate says

Four Harford County state delegates – along with a House colleague from Anne Arundel County – are sponsoring a bill in the Maryland General Assembly to establish criminal penalties for those who distribute heroin or fentanyl that causes a fatal overdose.

House Bill 612 was introduced in the House Judiciary Committee Jan. 30; a committee hearing is scheduled for Feb. 28, according to the General Assembly website.

The sponsors include Republican Delegates Rick Impallaria, Pat McDonough and Susan McComas, Democratic Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, all of Harford County, and Republican Del. Michael Malone, of Anne Arundel.

"Anne Arundel, like Harford County and the entire state, is having serious problem with heroin deaths," Impallaria said Monday.

Anne Arundel County Police reported 108 overdose deaths for 2016 as of Dec. 1, a massive spike from 43 deaths in 2015 and 44 deaths in 2014, according to the Capital Gazette, sister publication to The Aegis.

Harford County law enforcement recorded 56 fatal overdoses, out of 290 total overdoses, in 2016, compared to 200 overdoses – 27 fatal – in 2015.

"The overdoses are bad, but the deaths are really getting bad, and the leading reason for that is fentanyl," Impallaria noted.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid prescribed to treat pain. It is often mixed with heroin to create a more intense high, but it also increases the risk of death from an overdose.

House Bill 612 would impose a criminal penalty of up to 30 years in prison for someone convicted of distributing heroin or fentanyl, "the use of which is a contributing cause to the death of another," according to the legislation.

The penalties would not be limited to the person who directly sold the drugs, such as the street-level dealer. Third parties, such as drug suppliers or people who cut heroin with fentanyl before it goes out for sale, could also face prosecution, according to Impallaria.

"Anybody who is a part of the chain of putting these drugs on the street, especially these poisoned drugs, should be held accountable for it," Impallaria said.

The bill includes another provision protecting from prosecution people who sell drugs that cause an overdose, if they help the victim or assist medical personnel.

"If you bring the person to the hospital and work with the authorities to make sure their life is saved, you're not going to be charged," Impallaria said.

The person could face other criminal charges, such as possession of drugs, but would not face any charges related to the overdose, Impallaria stressed.

He noted a House colleague, Democratic Del. Kathleen Dumais, of Montgomery County, introduced similar legislation in a prior session. The bill passed the Judiciary Committee, but it was then sent back to committee from the House floor, he said.

House Bill 222 was introduced during the 2015 legislative session. Lisanti was among the delegates who co-sponsored it, according to the General Assembly website.

"It's like a lot of bills," Impallaria said. "It takes a few cracks at it to get it to pass."

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