Governor Gina Raimondo on Friday signed legislation to create a new criminal penalty for drug dealers.
The drug homicide bill, known as “Kristen’s Law,’’ has pitted medical professionals against law enforcement over its approach to the opioid crisis.
Here are seven things you should know about it:
1. The law creates a new criminal penalty of up to life in prison for drug dealers in cases where an adult dies of an overdose. The original legislation called for mandatory life sentences for dealers in cases of fatal overdoses, as is currently the law when the case involves a minor. But the language was changed to “up to life in prison.”
2. Drug dealers can already be charged with up to life in prison. State prosecutors have used Rhode Island’s felony murder statute to charge drug dealers in cases of fatal overdose. But such charges are rare because they are difficult to prosecute.
3. The legislation was introduced at the request of RI Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin. He said it creates a “strong deterrent” to drug dealers. But critics point to studies such as a 50-state report published in 2017 by the Pew Charitable Trusts that find no correlation between drug imprisonment rates and drug use or overdose deaths.
4. The new penalty does not apply to the act of sharing drugs. It does, however, apply to anyone who provided a controlled substance "in exchange for anything of value" that results in a fatal overdose.
5. A drug dealer who “in good faith” seeks medical help for someone who has overdosed will not be prosecuted. The language expands the protections under the state’s Good Samaritan statute to include drug delivery.
6. The law had a powerful sponsor. The House bill was sponsored Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Democrat from Cranston. The law is named after Kristen Coutu, a 29-year-old woman from Cranston who died of a drug overdose in 2014.
7. Governor Gina Raimondo says the bill is aimed at “significant drug dealers.” She said in a statement: "I recognize the concerns some have raised about this legislation and this has been a difficult decision. In making my decision, I've spoken at length with parents and others who have lost loved ones to this crisis and I believe that narrowly tailored public safety tools like Kristen's Law can help law enforcement take those selling lethal opioids off the streets and ensure that significant drug dealers who are getting rich off this crisis can be prosecuted for the deaths their products cause."