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Legislators debate penalties for selling drugs

From Nancy Royden, LRC

Frankfort, KY - The Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary heard testimony Thursday for and against legislation that would boost penalties for delivering, administering, distributing or selling controlled substances that result in an overdose death.

Rep. Deanna Frazier Gordon, R-Richmond, sponsored House Bill 388 during the 2023 Regular Session with Rep. Brandon Reed, R-Hodgenville. It would have allowed prosecutors to pursue murder charges in such cases. However, the measure remained in committee when the session ended.

"This is something that my constituents have been asking us for," she said. "We're not making good progress in the issues of opioid abuse and drug trafficking. Twenty other states in some way have enhanced their charges dealing in this area."

Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville, also testified in favor of the proposal, calling it an important tool to help law enforcement investigate drug crimes and root out "bad actors." Blanton, a former law enforcement officer, said he wished the law had been tougher in the 1990s.

"We're not interested in that user. We're interested in the dealer, the one that's putting the poison out on the street," he said. "The one that's killing our family members. And so this is another tool that will help law enforcement to get these people out of our communities and make it safer for our children, and our neighbors, and our communities."

Richmond Police Chief Rodney Richardson also testified in support. He told lawmakers that Madison County has suffered a high number of fatal overdoses in recent years. The county counted 85 in 2021, up from 68 the prior year, he said.

"One a week where we're finding people deceased, either in their homes, in parking lots, in tents on the side of the road, wherever we can find them," he said. "These are the ones that are reported to us."

Richardson said mothers have expressed frustration with way the department has handled their loved ones' cases.

However, Rep. Lindsey Burke, D-Lexington, said she has concerns about 18 to 21-year olds who have drug addiction problems and might face prison on a capital offense. She said she had friends and classmates who went down the wrong path, and some never recovered.

"When I think about the people who I knew and loved who were using and selling drugs, they were young people. They were young people who made big mistakes," she said.

B. Scott West, deputy public advocate for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, spoke in opposition to the measure. He cited a report that found prosecution doesn't stop people from selling drugs, but "chills" Good Samaritan laws.

"What this study finds is that the threat of criminal prosecution for murder, or lesser degrees of murder, are a chill effect and can actually lead to people walking away," he said.

Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher, R-Louisville, asked a rhetorical question about how much money federal, state and local governments have spent on the efforts. He also asked Thursday's presenters how effective drug reduction efforts have been.

"We've been talking about this stuff for 23 years, at least. And here we are again, and guys come in and they say this is a tool that we need. And it's just like a revolving cycle of what needs to be done," he said.

Richardson said the county coroner supplies the police department with different types of statistics. So far this year, the county has experienced 22 overdose deaths, and Richardson projected that the number would exceed 50 this year.

"We're on an uptick, so it's told me basically that we're increasing our numbers," he said.

Maj. Josh Hale of the Richmond Police Department, who also testified, said the money spent is worth it.

"I don't think we're ever going to be wasting time if we're talking about victims and families," he said.

This story was posted on 2023-06-09 09:58:21
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