PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After a heated floor debate lasting two hours, House lawmakers passed a bill that would allow for the prosecution of drug dealers in the deaths of their clients who overdose. The crime would carry a sentence of up to life in prison.
Representatives amended the bill on the floor before passage, clarifying that people who “share” drugs, as opposed to sell them, would not be charged with the new drug-induced homicide crime. The vote on the final bill was 55 to 14.
Several passionate representatives urged their colleagues to defeat the bill, which was sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
“This will save no lives, it will ruin them,” said Rep. Moira Walsh, D-Providence, who said her brother Thomas is a heroin addict. “This is the second bill offered by the Attorney General, whose solution to this crisis seems to be to incarcerate all of those affected by it.”
Walsh ended her speech with a message to her brother: “No matter what the final vote tally is, I love you and you are not a murderer.”
Rep. Jim McLaughlin, D-Cumberland, also brought a personal story to the floor—but to argue the opposite point. He described the death of his brother.
“His own friends left him for dead, he had overdosed,” McLaughlin said. “One less drug dealer that’s off the street might save one person.”
Supporters of the bill and the Attorney General insist its aim is to go after the drug dealers and traffickers who are knowingly providing deadly doses of drugs like fentanyl to Rhode Islanders. But members of the medical and recovery communities have fought hard against it, worried it will scoop up addicts and low-level drug dealers who sell to feed their own habit, and need treatment instead of prison.
“This is revenge bill,” said Haley McKee, a former drug user in long-term recovery who has been actively involved in the opposition to the bill. “It’s set out to find somebody to be culpable. It’s not forward-thinking.”
The bill is named for Kristen Coutu, a 29-year-old woman who died in Cranston in 2014 after taking a fatal dose of fentanyl that she thought was heroin.
“Drug traffickers should not get a free pass for killing people,” Kilmartin said in a statement after the vote.
Coutu’s drug dealer did not get a free pass; Aaron Andrade was charged with murder, ultimately pleaded guilty to 2nd-degree murder and is currently serving a 20 year prison sentence. But Amy Kempe, a spokesperson for Kilmartin, says prosecutors believe there is a grey area in the state’s current homicide statutes that could allow for a challenge when the law is used to prosecute drug dealers.
Kristen’s Law would fix that loophole, Kempe said.
The bill has been amended multiple times over the course of the legislative session; the Senate added a Good Samaritan clause to protect dealers from prosecution under the law if they seek medical treatment for a person overdosing.
Nevertheless, several lawmakers said they were worried the mere existence of the law could have a chilling effect on people who could flee the scene of an overdose instead of seeking help, for fear of being prosecuted.
“My fear is we’re going to kill more people with this bill,” said Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster.
Representatives declined to pass two amendments proposed on the floor: one that would exempt drug addicts from prosecution under the bill, and another that would require “intent to harm” from the drug dealer in order to be charged with the new crime.
State law already allows for a drug-induced homicide charge if the victim is a minor. Kempe said it has been used one time in the case of a child victim. Kristen’s Law would extend the crime to adult victims.
Because of the amendment passed Thursday, the bill is slightly different than the version that passed the Senate earlier this month. The revised legislation will need to go back to the Senate for passage before going to the governor’s desk.
Protect Families First, a group that has been fighting against the bill, along with the Rhode Island ACLU issued statements after the House vote urging Governor Raimondo to veto it.
Raimondo’s press secretary Josh Block said she plans to sign it.