Baltimore City lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee have successfully mobilized their colleagues to defeat a bill that would have increased criminal penalties for distributing heroin in cases where it contributed to the death of a user. House Bill 222, sponsored by Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery County), vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee, would have made anyone who distributed heroin or fentanyl (a synthetic opiate prescription drug) liable for up to 30 years in prison if the drug contributed to the death of a user.

Delegates Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City) and Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City), concerned the bill represented another misplaced attempt to address the problem of drugs through criminal sanctions that are often enforced only on people of color, maneuvered to kill the bill after it received a favorable report from the House Judiciary Committee in a 12 to 9 vote on March 18 (the Judiciary Committee requires 11 votes for a proposed bill to receive a favorable report, after which it then reaches the House floor for a vote from the entire House of Delegates).

According to Dumais, she introduced the bill at the behest of Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, who wanted a state law modeled on a similar existing federal law (the federal law includes all drugs and imposes up to a life sentence, says Dumais).  Because federal resources are limited, House Bill 222 would make it possible to pursue an enhanced sentence at the state level for people accused of distributing heroin or fentanyl if its use resulted in the death of the user.

The increase in heroin related deaths across the state was what ultimately led to the proposed bill, according to Dumais, who said it was “only one piece of working on the heroin epidemic.

“We have to have public education and awareness, we have to have the treatment options, and making the Narcan (a drug that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose) available for our first responders. This is a law enforcement piece, but there are so many other pieces.”

But the experience of the 40 year War on Drugs tells us that increasing penalties has little deterrent effect, says Anderson. “Increasing the penalty is a cheap way of making yourself feel good, like you did something. Actually trying to help these people who are addicted to drugs (through treatment and prevention) would probably be a more appropriate way to solve the problem,” said Anderson. He added that there is no data suggesting increased penalties could effectively address the spike in heroin deaths seen recently in the state, but there is ample evidence that the law would be enforced largely on the backs of African Americans.

Anderson and Carter took their concerns to the Legislative Black Caucus in the House of Delegates, who agreed to take a strong stance against it, putting pressure on House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) to not bring the bill to a vote on the House floor, where he would then have to deal with a publicly divided Democratic Caucus. The Legislative Latino Caucus, also concerned about the bill’s impact on communities of color according to Carter, joined the Black Caucus in opposing the measure.

According to Carter, this resulted in Busch having the Judiciary Committee recommit the bill (take the bill back essentially) on March 23 and send it to Gov. Larry Hogan’s task force on heroin for consideration, rather than presiding over a big split among members of his own party on the House floor.

Both Anderson and Carter noted that no one was seeking these sorts of increased penalties specifically for heroin-related deaths when that issue was viewed as a Baltimore City problem.

“All of a sudden, because is hitting White people, now it’s an epidemic. It has been an epidemic in Baltimore for 30 years, but no one ever threw up their hands and said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something, because it was affecting poor and minority people,” Anderson said.

Carter noted that an effort to increase heroin-related penalties coming from Montgomery County, where those affected by overdoses are more likely to be White, stands in stark contrast to the way much of the Judiciary Committee has treated a matter more closely related to Black lives.

“They refused to address the issue of policing, changing the culture of policing, that has resulted in 109 deaths in Maryland over the last four years,” said Carter, citing a briefing paper by the ACLU of Maryland documenting police-involved killings in the state between 2010 and 2014.

“What’s very disheartening . . . is that while there’s this push to get this (heroin issue) addressed, there’s this summary denial of the legitimate claims of all those hundreds of people that came here to talk about deaths at the hands of law enforcement. . . . We turned a blind eye to those people.”