RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — As fentanyl overdoses continue to plague communities across North Carolina, the state Senate is considering legislation to increase punishments for drug dealers whose distribution of the synthetic opioid results in an overdose death.
A bill that advanced Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee would revise state laws to create high-grade felony offenses for deaths caused by distributing controlled substances and doing so with malice. It would also increase fine amounts for trafficking heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil, setting a sliding scaled based on drug quantity.
The committee unanimously approved the proposal after hearing from sheriffs, district attorneys and parents who have lost children to fentanyl overdoses.
Among them was Leslie Maynor Locklear, a middle school math teacher from Robeson County, who said she lost her purpose as a mother in the span of nine months when both of her sons died last year from separate drug and fentanyl related deaths.
In 2021, more than 4,000 North Carolinians died of drug overdoses, marking the state’s highest recorded number of overdose deaths in a single year, according to the most recent available data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. More than 77% of those deaths likely involved fentanyl, the agency said.
“I owe it to my boys to fight for them,” Locklear said, “and to support every measure I can to stem the flow of illegal drugs, to punish the people who sell them and to stop every person I can from every trying to.”
Under the bill, dealers with lengthy records who commit such crimes with aggravating circumstances could face more than a decade in prison. Those who act with malice could face more than 30 years.
A previous version of the bill moved through the Senate in 2019 but never made it to the House. Some lawmakers and advocates had raised concerns that it could deter other drug users from calling 911 in the event of an overdose if they had shared drugs with the person who needed medical attention.
The new bill would amend the state’s Good Samaritan law to create limited immunity for a person in possession of less than one gram of fentanyl who calls to report an overdose.
“We want to encourage people to seek assistance,” Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and primary sponsor, said at a news conference earlier Tuesday. “We don’t want people to be using drugs with someone else and be afraid they’re going to catch a charge so they’re going to simply refuse to call 911.”
North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association President Charles Blackwood, of Orange County, said the association “highly supports” the legislation at a time when fentanyl has “ravaged our communities across the state.”
“We’re running out of Narcan,” Blackwood said of the common opioid overdose antidote. “We’re having to get grants to get Narcan — that’s absurd.”
District Attorney Ernie Lee, who represents Duplin, Jones, Onslow and Sampson counties, said prosecutors and law enforcement need more clarity in the state’s drug laws, which this bill would provide.
When Onslow County mother of four Vanessa Sapp lost her son, Jason, to a drug overdose in 2016, she worked with Lee’s office and local law enforcement to hold the dealer accountable. The individual who provided her son the drugs received a second-degree murder charge in what Sapp described as a rare occurrence for the time.
This proposal, she said, could spare families from losing loved ones and give others a similar path to justice.
“Laws like this are so important because other families need to have that closure that we have,” Sapp said at the news conference. “No doubt, this could save other lives.”