Editorial: Opioid legislation proposals step in right direction

A proposal to impose tougher punishments on drug dealers linked to fatal overdoses that has roots in Carroll County should get a serious look in the General Assembly, now that it's been introduced as part of Gov. Larry Hogan's package of legislation to combat heroin- and opioid-related deaths in Maryland.

Under the governor's proposal, anyone convicted of selling drugs that result in a fatal overdose would be subjected to a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison. The bill is similar to a bipartisan measure introduced in the 2015 legislative session that was initiated by a request from Carroll County State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo, a Republican, and Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy, a Democrat. That bill never made it to a floor vote.


With the Republican governor's backing, even with a Democratic majority in Annapolis, the bill has a far greater chance of succeeding this year, especially as jurisdictions across the state, regardless of political leanings, continue to see overdose deaths mount. Statewide, twice as many people died from opioid overdoses last year than in 2015.

Plenty have argued that we can't arrest our way out of the problem, and we mostly think that's true. Arresting street-level dealers isn't going to solve the opioid epidemic and also isn't the point of the legislation calling for stiffer penalties for selling drugs that lead to an overdose death. Rather, it's a tool to allow prosecutors to go after higher-level dealers.

DeLeonardo painted a scenario in which a small-time dealer in Carroll who sells heroin that leads to a fatal overdose here could have bought their supply from a dealer in Baltimore County, who in turn bought it from someone in Baltimore City. The city dealer, under the proposal, could ultimately be brought to stand trial in Carroll for the death that occurred here. Putting those individuals behind bars should make a more significant dent in the problem.

It would also allow for victim impact statements to be made in court, something that doesn't occur when someone is found guilty of distribution, which can allow for some healing for the deceased's families and friends.

A second piece of legislation proposed by the governor, which calls for limiting doctors to prescribing a week's supply of opioid medications, gives us some pause. While more needs to be done to limit doctors from prescribing opioids like candy, since many folks who become addicted began with a legitimate prescription, we wonder what it means for individuals who really need these meds for chronic pain. This one warrants a closer look.

Disheartening, though, was that the governor's plan didn't specifically call for more funding for local treatment and education efforts, although it's possible that may be covered by his executive order creating an "opioid operational command center." Carroll Health Officer Ed Singer was optimistic that it would at least allow health officials at the state and local level to more quickly share data and stories about what is working and what isn't in their particular jurisdictions.

Still, we're glad to see Gov. Hogan taking the issue seriously and looking for solutions to the epidemic.