RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — As North Carolina and the nation grapple with a surge in deaths tied to drug overdoses, a Senate committee on Tuesday approved a bill to increase penalties for trafficking fentanyl and to make it easier to prosecute dealers. 

Leslie Maynor Locklear spoke about the suffering she experienced when she lost her younger son, Matthew, early last year to a fentanyl overdose. 

“Watching your child face these struggles is heartbreaking, especially when you know there’s nothing you can do but pray,” she said. 

But, her loss did not end there, she added. In November, she came home to find her older son, Ryan, face down on a bed and unresponsive. 

“Within the span of nine months, I lost my purpose as a mother,” she said. “Ryan had tried to help others from drug addiction but was instead overtaken by addiction himself.” 

In 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available from the NC Department of Health and Human Services, the state saw a record 4,041 people die because of drug overdoses. It was a 22 percent increase from the previous year.  

Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson) and other Republicans in the state Senate have sponsored a bill that would modify laws recently passed by the General Assembly in an effort to curb the opioid epidemic.   

The bill would make several changes. Among them, fines for people convicted of trafficking heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil could be as high as $1 million.

It would also expand the scope of the state’s death-by-distribution law to create new offenses for deaths caused by the distribution of drugs.

In addition, it would amend the state’s Good Samaritan law to give immunity to someone who possesses less than one gram of fentanyl or other drugs and calls 911 to try to get help for someone who is suffering a drug-related overdose. 

“Target those people and let them know if you’re out there pushing fentanyl in our communities, we’re coming after you and we’re coming after you together,” said Britt. 

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, who also serves as president of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, said his organization supports the bill. 

“What worked a year ago won’t work this year. What worked two years ago won’t work this year. We have to change with the changes that we face. And, it is time for a change,” he said. 

He also said there needs to be additional funding for naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose. District attorneys also have asked for additional funding to hire more people to help reduce the backlog of cases, particularly in rural areas.  

While the bill does not include any funding, Britt said those are issues that are being discussed as part of the ongoing budget negotiations this year.  

The legislation also would require an autopsy be performed when a case is being prosecuted under the death by distribution law, as district attorneys noted that without those autopsies it makes it much more difficult to prove those cases. 

In addition, a task force focused on fentanyl and other drug violations would be formed. Comprised of six public safety officials, the task force would study and recommend further changes to state law to combat the issue.