Change considered for drug death statute

In response to the large numbers of drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania, state Republicans and Democrats are paying more attention to the problem.

Their proposed solutions, however, differ markedly.

Two proposals in the General Assembly show the divide. One would increase penalties while the other would emphasize unintended consequences of drug laws and the need to treat addiction as a health crisis.

Mastriano’s proposed bill

Senate Bill 1295, proposed by Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, would set a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison for anyone convicted of fentanyl distribution connected to an overdose death.

That bill, also called Tyler’s Law, aims to make it harder for a lenient sentence or a plea deal to be approved. It would, however, not apply to drug users who share drugs with friends or family, or those who try to get medical help for users who overdose, according to Mastriano’s legislative memo.

Proposed house resolution

A Democratic-led House Resolution 218 by Rep. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia, would change the current “drug delivery resulting in death” statute. It would narrow the statute to apply to “commercial drug dealers who are out to make a profit,” as he wrote in a legislative memo. It would also require the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to produce a study on the effects of the DDRD law and whether it’s applied equitably.

DDRD charges, the acronym refers to drug delivery resulting in death, increased 356% statewide from 2015 to 2019. As of 2020, 25 states, including Pennsylvania, had a DDRD law.

“There’s no evidence that being tough on crime works,” Rabb said.

He worried about overloading the prison system with people with health problems rather than a criminal problem.

Not imprisoning dealers who don’t benefit financially

“If you are engaged in this type of activity and it’s not for commercial benefit, it’s not for profit, you are unnecessarily locking up and putting into the criminal legal system, people who have serious medical issues that need to be addressed and not imprisoned,” Rabb said.

“The statute as it stands can add into the mix pretty much anybody, at great cost – and that’s a cost that society bears,” Rabb said. “What are the externalities of laws like this? It’s a vicious cycle.”

In the resolution, Rabb cited Bonnie Hoffman of the National Association for Defense Lawyers that about half of cases with DDRD charges involved someone who shared drugs with a friend.

“It radiates far beyond the original act of maybe roommates who, one roommate pays back the other with the drug they’re trying to use, and that would hem them up,” Rabb said. 

Over 5,400 overdose deaths in 2021

With the growing prevalence of fentanyl in the commonwealth, overdose deaths have increased. Pennsylvania reported more than 5,400 overdose deaths in 2021.