By Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
Gastañaga is Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia.
Gov. Ralph Northam has before him for signature or veto, legislation (House Bill 2528 introduced by Del. Tim Hugo) that would expand Virginia criminal law to allow someone to be charged with a felony if they provide a drug to another adult who takes the drug voluntarily and overdoses.
Contrary to representations by some proponents of this legislation, this bill, as passed by the General Assembly and sent back to the governor, does not just punish drug dealers (who are already subject to substantial penalties) by making them guilty of felony homicide. The bill also makes it a Class 5 felony to give a drug to another person who overdoses.
After more than 40 years of the failed War on Drugs, we know one thing for sure — imposing harsh punishments on suppliers (dealers or friends) hasn’t solved the drug problem but has cost the taxpayers of the Commonwealth millions of dollars in prosecution and incarceration. Drugs are just as available, cheap, and in demand as ever. Expanding the law to allow someone to be charged with murder for selling a drug to another adult who takes it voluntarily and dies or prosecuting as felons friends who gave a drug to a friend who takes it and dies will not end overdoses.
Trying to prosecute our way out of drug problems (especially when a significant causal factor is overprescribing by licensed providers) is an expensive and ineffective approach to the public health crisis we are facing. Many petty dealers sell drugs to support their own habit. The Commonwealth would be much better served by redirecting people into treatment programs, using other proven effective ways for reducing drug dependency, and saving lives at a fraction of the expense of incarcerating drug suppliers. The governor and other Virginia policy makers should focus on and invest in addressing the root causes of addiction rather than enacting message bills that offer no real solutions to this public health problem.
If the governor signs this legislation, he will be leading the Commonwealth in the wrong direction. Virginia doesn’t need stiffer penalties for drug dealers and people who share drugs with friends. Virginia law already provides for stiff penalties for drug distributors. For example, distribution of 100 grams or more of heroin carries a penalty of a five years to life sentence with a mandatory minimum of five years and a fine up to one million dollars, Virginia Code §18.2-248. C.1.
Rather than endorse an ineffective “message bill” like this, the governor should reject this approach and institute policies and practices to ensure that the Commonwealth focuses on what works to save lives, including safe reporting laws, better and more widely available treatment programs, and stigma-free services. The General Assembly has taken steps in previous sessions toward addressing drug use as a public health issue including approving making naloxone broadly accessible. This legislation takes Virginia backward to the incarceration-focused policies of the War on Drugs that have been shown to be expensive and ineffective in addressing the root causes of addiction.
As a doctor and a scientist, we hope the governor will agree that the escalating human cost of the proliferation of opiates in our Commonwealth needs smarter, evidence-based responses than this bill offers, and, accordingly, that he will choose to veto this expensive, unnecessary and ineffective legislation.