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Lawmakers hold hearing on bill that would tie homicide to drug overdoses

Lawmakers hold hearing on bill that would tie homicide to drug overdoses

ANNAPOLIS — Carroll County mothers whose sons died as a result of heroin or fentanyl overdoses testified with emotion on Tuesday in support of legislation that allow police to charge distributors of the two drugs with homicide when a user of their supplied contraband dies as a result an overdose or other contributing factor.

Beth Schmidt, of Sykesville, whose son died of a fentanyl overdose, carries a list of victims of overdoses with her as she speaks out for prevention and awareness.

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She said in her testimony Tuesday to the House Judiciary Committee that she believed the bill would deter distributors.

"We are incarcerating these dealers, and they get probation after probation after probation," Schmidt said during her testimony. "These dealers need to be held accountable."

House Bill 222, and the cross-filed Senate Bill 303, states that if heroin or fentanyl is a "contributing cause" in a death, the distributor of that drug could be tried for homicide with a sentence not exceeding 30 years. The law includes a Good Samaritan provision, which would give immunity to anyone who "seeks, provides, or assists [with]" medical services during an overdose — as long as the prosecution was based solely on efforts to provide assistance.

During the House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday supporters of the legislation said it would get dealers off the streets, although they admitted it isn't a "magic bullet" and still urged for rehabilitation of users and prevention programs.

Federal law allows officials to hold dealers accountable for overdose deaths, but getting cases through the busy federal courts is tough, supporters said.

Opponents said they felt the bill didn't address the real problem of encourage and providing treatment and would only serve to imprison more people. Maura Taylor, who grew up in Severna Park, testified against the legislation, saying it doesn't "address the overdose problem."

Taylor said her daughter is battling an addiction to heroin.

"It will fold in the wrong people," Taylor said in her testimony. "The problem has been identified; we have an overdose problem in the state. This is not the solution."

Maryland has been battling what officials have called a heroin epidemic. Heroin overdose deaths are up across the state with Carroll County having 13 heroin-related deaths in the first nine months of 2014.

Anne Arundel County has suffered as well, with 37 heroin-related deaths through September 2014, according to Department of Health and Mental Hygiene data. That county's heroin death toll peaked in 2013 when 41 fatalities were attributed to the drug.

And across the state, heroin overdose numbers are up: through September 2014, there were 428 recorded heroin overdose deaths compared with 247 in 2011.

Policymakers and officials, both Democratic and Republican, have recognized the overdose problem as a serious issue.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced he would place Maryland under a state of emergency in an effort to bring in federal money to combat the crisis and has sought support on the issue. Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh proclaimed a countywide public health emergency, and first responders have begun using naloxone, a drug that helps those in the throes of an heroin overdose.

Supporters on Tuesday consisted of family members of those who died from overdoses, state's attorneys from various counties, including Carroll's Brian DeLeonardo, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriff's Association.

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Police and prosecutors argued in support of the bill because they said they felt the new criminal charge would help them put away those who are distributing large volumes of the drug in their jurisdictions.

But the opposition cautioned that the legislation, as written, would loop in small scale criminals who sell the drug to feed their own habits and that laws already are on the books to prosecute large-scale distributors. They also raised concerns that money spent on imprisoning the dealers would take away money and resources for treatment and user relief.

"The emphasis absolutely needs to be on understanding the disease and providing adequate, accessible, affordable, high-quality treatment," Taylor said. "I don't want my money spent on prosecutors or jails; I want my money spent on treatment.

"I hope they don't pass it," she said.

The bill wasn't voted on — initial committee hearings don't typically feature a vote — but could eventually move to the floor of the General Assembly. The Senate version of the bill has a hearing scheduled for March 4 at 1 p.m. with the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Gina DeMaria, of Westminster, said she testified in support of the bill because some of the career dealers, who her son received heroin from, have had prison time and that it hasn't stopped them.

If that prison time was attached to a homicide charge, those dealers could have second thoughts, she said.

"They were given a prison time," DeMaria said. "Nine times my son was in treatment. Every time he got out, someone was looking for him … you have to get rid of them.

"Just get one off the street; send one message. And that person they were dealing to has a chance."

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