Missouri lawmakers propose new fentanyl dealer charges. Would that help the crisis?

Jamie Fisher, devastated by the loss of her daughter to fentanyl in June 2021, took immediate action by reaching out to the Independence police. She wanted to understand the department’s efforts in investigating her daughter’s death.

When Samantha “Sami” Fisher, 23, passed away, she had a single photo on her new cellphone. It was a picture she had taken that day, showcasing three pills that she believed to be Percocets. She affectionately referred to them as “my three little Percs.” However, unbeknownst to her, those pills were actually laced with fentanyl.

According to Fisher, she made frequent calls to the organization, starting with twice a week and eventually reducing it to once a week. However, despite her persistence, not a single person returned her calls. This lack of response left her feeling neglected and as though her life didn’t matter simply because she had chosen to take the pills.

Fisher, along with a group of Missouri lawmakers, is advocating for the implementation of new legislation. This legislation aims to introduce felony charges against individuals who knowingly distribute or sell drugs that cause serious injury or death. The objective behind this proposal is to impose stricter penalties in an effort to curb the rising number of overdoses and fatalities.

According to a report by NPR in July, research published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that drug busts and police arrests targeting drug sellers may actually be exacerbating the overdose crisis.

According to Fisher, implementing stricter laws will compel police officers to engage in better communication with the public. Fisher emphasizes the need for holding accountable those who distribute fentanyl and believes that even law enforcement officers will be subject to accountability under these new regulations.

Lawmakers passed a version of the legislation earlier this year, but it was ultimately rejected by Republican Gov. Mike Parson in July when he vetoed a comprehensive public safety package.

The bipartisan bill, which encompassed provisions for compensating the wrongfully convicted and providing workers’ compensation for first responders, garnered widespread support. However, there are concerns among certain Democrats and healthcare professionals regarding the efficacy of imposing new charges on drug sellers as a means to address the issue.

“I am incredibly frustrated,” expressed state Rep. Bill Allen, a Kansas City Republican who sponsored a version of the bill, in response to Parson’s veto. “We were all in agreement that urgent action needed to be taken regarding fentanyl, but when it came down to it, he chose not to sign the legislation.”

Advocates of the bill, who are determined to reintroduce it in January, assert that it would provide prosecutors with a crucial weapon to combat the surge in fentanyl-related fatalities and overdoses. The Drug Enforcement Administration reveals that this substance is 50 times more powerful than heroin, and it has wreaked havoc across the nation, claiming the lives of over 850 individuals in the Kansas City area since 2018.

The proposed legislation sought to elevate the punishment for knowingly distributing a controlled substance that is combined with another controlled substance and leads to “serious physical injury.” Offenders would have faced a felony charge, with prison sentences ranging from three to ten years. In the event that the delivery of the controlled substance resulted in death, the penalty would have been even more severe, with potential sentences of ten to thirty years or even life in prison. This would have classified the offense as a Class A felony, the most serious category of felony in Missouri.

The Star has been conducting a comprehensive investigation into the devastating impact of fentanyl in the nine-county Kansas City area since 2018. Throughout this series, we have uncovered the widespread destruction caused by this crisis, affecting people of all ages, races, and demographics. Numerous families we have interviewed expressed a sense of injustice, feeling that the police have failed to provide them with the justice they seek.

Parson’s office cited two reasons for vetoing the bill. One provision aimed to expand the eligibility for compensation to individuals who were wrongfully convicted. The other provision would have allowed certain individuals convicted of sexual offenses to have their records expunged.

According to Johnathan Shiflett, a spokesperson for Governor Parson, the bill had several provisions that the governor supported. However, there were certain provisions, such as the one that could have reduced punishments for sex offenders, that he did not support, as mentioned in his veto letter. Governor Parson is open to reconsidering the favorable aspects of the bill in the upcoming legislative session.

However, there are still doubts about whether increasing the number of criminal charges for drug offenses would effectively reduce the surge in fentanyl-related deaths and overdoses. Skeptics, including healthcare professionals and Democrats, have highlighted the country’s past of criminalizing drug users, particularly those of “crack” cocaine, which had a disproportionate impact on minority communities.

Rachel Winograd, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the director of the addiction science team at the Missouri Institute of Mental Health, expressed her belief that this situation is yet another example of the ineffective nature of the drug war. She emphasizes that we should recognize that the current approach is not achieving its intended goals.

“We have decades of evidence that clearly demonstrates how punishment and incarceration not only fail to help but actually worsen outcomes for individuals struggling with drug addiction. Moreover, these harmful practices also have a negative impact on their families, friends, and neighbors, as well as the wider community affected by addiction and overdose.”

Allen stated that he intends to submit a revised version of the legislation on Friday, which is the designated day for lawmakers to prefile bills for the upcoming session.


Health professionals, Democrats skeptical of new charges

According to Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, the bill not only enables the charging of individuals with felony murder when delivering fentanyl leading to a fatality, but it also allows prosecutors to pursue charges against those who deliver drugs resulting in injury, even without a death.

According to Baker, there is a concerning increase in the number of deaths among people who unknowingly consume drugs. He emphasizes that investigative bodies have not been able to keep up with the rising overdose deaths, particularly among teenagers.

House Majority Leader Jonathan Patterson, a Republican from Lee’s Summit, expressed his skepticism about charging individuals who distribute drugs that result in death with murder, stating that such cases are “very difficult to prove.”

He stated that this would be an additional charge that they could include to accurately reflect the crime committed by these drug dealers.

Critics have raised concerns about the country’s punitive and expensive approach to criminalizing drug use, which has led to widespread incarceration and a lack of meaningful reforms. However, there are now fears of a resurgence, as certain lawmakers are considering tougher penalties for distributing fentanyl.

State Representative Maggie Nurrenbern, a Kansas City Democrat, empathizes with both lawmakers and the families of fentanyl death victims. She acknowledges that if she were a mother going through such a devastating loss, she, too, would want to exhaust every possible solution to address this issue.

However, she expressed doubt about whether increasing penalties would be an effective solution to the problem.

“I believe it would be more beneficial for Missouri to address the root causes that contribute to the distribution of drugs,” she expressed. “This entails prioritizing adequate funding for education, as well as providing support for job creation, healthcare, and safe housing.”

According to a fiscal report by legislative staff, the Missouri Department of Corrections has projected that if Allen’s original bill is passed, approximately four individuals would be incarcerated and six would be placed on probation every year for the offense of delivering a drug that causes injury.

According to the report, the department estimated that only one person would be sent to prison each year for delivering a drug resulting in death.

According to Doug Day, the spokesperson for KC CARE Health Center, a healthcare nonprofit in Kansas City, criminalization may serve as a deterrent, but it is not a definitive solution. He suggests that more effective legislation should focus on providing greater access to Naloxone, a drug used to combat opioid overdoses, as well as increased funding for harm reduction and recovery programs.

According to a statement by Day, the criminalization of substances has often led individuals to turn to more dangerous substances that are less regulated. He points out that the emergence of fentanyl can be traced back to the criminalization of heroin.

According to Winograd from the Missouri Institute of Mental Health, it may be tempting to search for someone to blame during a public health crisis. However, she asserts that it is not as straightforward as that. The portrayal of drug sellers by the public is often inaccurate.

According to her, there is a significant overlap between individuals who sell drugs and those who use drugs. It is common for drug users to occasionally engage in selling or sharing drugs, and vice versa. This finding suggests that there is a considerable intersection within these two populations.

According to her, there is a common rhetoric that shows more compassion towards people who use drugs. However, when it comes to drug dealers, they are often seen as the villains who need to be locked up and removed from the streets. Unfortunately, this rhetoric does not always align with reality.

According to her, over 50% of the prosecutions for similar laws across the country have involved friends, family members, or partners of the deceased individual.

Parson’s veto may have eliminated the penalties for individuals involved in the distribution of drugs leading to harm or death. However, he did take a step towards addressing the issue of overdose deaths by signing a law that permits the acquisition and utilization of fentanyl testing strips. These strips, which were previously deemed illegal drug paraphernalia, are intended to serve as a preventive measure against fatal overdoses.


A step towards solving the crisis?

Baker, the prosecutor of Jackson County, admitted that they made some damaging mistakes when it came to targeting specific communities affected by crack cocaine. She recognized the need for prosecutors to exercise discretion in determining when to bring charges under the new law.

According to her, tackling the issue requires a dual approach that emphasizes the importance of treatment and also holds individuals accountable through prosecution.

According to her, the absence of such a penalty fails to acknowledge the profit margin that exists for certain individuals. She argues that for those who sell drugs to teenagers, resulting in fatal overdoses, their actions may not be driven solely by addiction.

State Representative Richard Brown, a Democrat from Kansas City, remains skeptical of the legislation, expressing doubt about its effectiveness in addressing the state’s drug addiction problems.

“I believe that our state would be better served by allocating funds towards treating addictions, rather than prioritizing the incarceration of individuals struggling with addiction,” stated Brown, who is running for lieutenant governor in 2024, via a text message.

According to Allen, the sponsor of the bill, the rising number of fentanyl deaths underscores the importance of this legislation as a crucial step taken by lawmakers to address the crisis.

“There is a multitude of possibilities at the state level,” he expressed. “We cannot afford to wait for absolute perfection to address a crisis. We must take the initiative and begin somewhere. In my opinion, this legislative proposal is a practical and sensible starting point.”

The COVID pandemic was at its peak in 2019 to 2020 when the number of fentanyl deaths began to rise. However, it was in 2021 when these deaths truly skyrocketed, as explained by Fisher.

“My daughter wasn’t a priority back then,” she said. The fentanyl epidemic was completely overshadowed by COVID.”

“If only they had raised their voices about this issue as much as they did about COVID in the past when it became a problem, we could have saved numerous lives.”

Missouri lawmakers need to recognize the urgency in taking immediate action to combat the increasing number of fentanyl-related deaths.

“These individuals must be held responsible for the lives they have taken, for our relatives, our families, our loved ones,” expressed Fisher passionately.

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