PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island lawmakers are hearing testimony Tuesday on a law seeking stricter punishments for those found to be responsible for drug-induced deaths.
The legislation mandates a life sentence for anyone who sells or distributes drugs to a person who dies after ingesting the substance. If the bill is enacted, it would be named “Kristen’s Law” in honor of Kristen Coutu, a 29-year-old woman who died after taking what she thought was heroin; the substance was actually nearly pure fentanyl.
The man who sold her the lethal dose, Aaron Andrade, pleaded no contest to second degree murder charges. Andrade was sentenced last April to 40 years in prison with 20 to serve, with the remainder suspended with probation.
Kristen’s mother, Suzanne Coutu, remembers her daughter’s infectious laugh and larger-than-life personality.
“She loved me more than anything,” Coutu said. “She was just a great kid.”
Coutu also said her daughter struggled with bipolar disorder and had just left a rehab facility days before her death.
“I had heard a knock on the door, there were two policemen there and I said to them, ‘Please don’t tell me daughter’s dead, please don’t tell me that,'” Coutu said. “And they said, ‘I’m sorry ma’am.'”
Coutu testified in favor of Kristen’s Law at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday night.
“I want the message to be that you can’t do that in Rhode Island,” she told Eyewitness News. “You can’t sell lethal drugs to someone and walk away like they did with my daughter and then have them die on the street by themselves when you walk away free.”
Under the current state law, any person convicted of the sale, delivery or distribution of a controlled substance to a minor who dies of an overdose will face life in prison. The new legislation would expand the law to include everyone who is convicted, regardless of the victim’s age.
“The devastation to the family and the friends and knowing that there are those bad actors out there and they don’t care, they just want to make a profit on a deadly, deadly product,” Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said.
The bill is being sponsored by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on behalf of Kilmartin.
On Tuesday, the Rhode Island ACLU, mental health advocates and recovering substance abusers spoke out against the proposal at a hearing on the bill. Opponents say it would ultimately harm drug users who would benefit more from treatment, not life behind bars.
“Being a survivor of overdose, hearing a bill like this, if I were the person holding that plunger to my arm, I would tell my friends to back away and leave, whatever happens may happen, do not call the police,” said Michael Galipeau, a social worker and recovering substance abuser. “Because I do not want any of my friends to go to jail for life for my decision.”
Opponents of the bill also raised concerns that it would impact the state’s Good Samaritan act, which grants immunity against being arrested to those who call for medical assistance when someone is experiencing an overdose. A spokeswoman for the AG’s office said they’re working to ensure Kristen’s Law wouldn’t impact users who share drugs with each other or undermine the Good Samaritan law.