Rhode Island’s House of Representatives Thursday night approved a bill to create a new criminal penalty for dealers in cases of fatal overdoses.
The vote was 55:14.
The vote followed two hours of passionate testimony both for and against the bill by lawmakers who spoke about family members whose lives have been ruined or lost to drug addiction.
“One less drug dealer that’s off the street might save one person,’’ Rep. James N. McLaughlin, D-Cumberland, whose said his brother died from drugs. “I’m sick and tired of hearing we’re losing the drug war….Guess what, the drug dealers love to hear that!”
Rep. Moira J. Walsh, D-Providence also spoke from personal experience. “This is not an attempt to stymie the opioid epidemic; this is an attempt to hide it behind bars,’’ she said. “This will save no lives; it will ruin them.”
Walsh concluded her testimony saying, “To my brother, Thomas, who I know is not watching now, I love you and you are not a murderer. “
The drug homicide bill was introduced at the request of Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, who said it was needed to send a message to drug dealers. The bill is named Kristen’s Law, after a 29-year-old Cranston woman who died of an overdose in 2014.
The Rhode Island Medical Society, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild are among the organizations that oppose the bill.
The Senate passed a similar bill last month. One of the bills must be approved by both chambers before the measure can be sent to the governor for her signature.
Governor Gina Raimondo has said that she supports the legislation, which was amended to remove language that would have mandated life sentences in cases of fatal overdoses. The measure, Raimondo said, gives judges the discretion needed to impose a life sentence if they deem appropriate.