Utah bill targets drug dealers who cause fentanyl deaths
SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to target drug dealers for fentanyl deaths cleared a Utah Senate hurdle on Tuesday.
“This is maybe a little out of desperation to do something about the rise in deaths from fentanyl and other types of drugs,” Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said of his Senate Bill 254, which would add drug-induced homicide to Utah’s criminal code. A conviction on the second-degree felony could result in imprisonment of five years to life.
According to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, illegal drug makers are adding the powerful synthetic fentanyl to other narcotic doses to produce a more intense — but often deadlier — high. About 60% of illegal fentanyl doses come in pill form, sometimes mislabeled as less powerful prescription narcotics.
Fentanyl overdose death numbers “are really raging out of control,” Weiler told the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, which voted 2-1 in favor of the bill.
From 2019 to 2020, Utah fentanyl deaths more than doubled, from 53 to 120, according to the state health agency.
Substance use disorder treatment practitioners and defense attorneys voiced strong objections to Weiler’s bill.
In states that have adopted drug homicide laws, studies have shown “no reduction in the proliferation of illicit substances,” said Evan Done, representing Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness. “What they do see is the sharp cessation of help-seeking behaviors,” he said.
For years, state officials and addiction treatment nonprofits have had success in educating people to call 911 and administer the Narcan overdose reversal drug, with no fear of prosecution, according to advocates.
But the homicide law would cause renewed fear of prosecution for people present when someone is overdosing, those who testified Tuesday said. “It won’t bring people back and it will undo the progress that we have made in Utah, and more people will die from overdose.”
Mindy Vincent, director of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, said S.B. 254 and similar bills “are rooted in misdirected emotion and do not deter use or distribution, but only drive people further underground.”
Vincent said her sister died of overdose from a drug given to her by another sibling. A homicide law could have destroyed two lives in her family, not just one, she said.
Mark Moffat of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the bill’s scope is too broad. He said people “could be swept up in this bill” by trading drugs for rides or places to stay.
But prosecutors said the bill would give law enforcement tools, in the words of Kane County Attorney Rob Van Dyke, to punish “the most reckless drug dealers.” Will Carlson of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office said the bill is tailored to target only drug sales, “so you get people who are profiting off of it.”
Weiler later told the committee he is willing to tighten the definitions of those who could be charged with homicide. “If the bill doesn’t advance, I guess we can wait another year and see if the fentanyl problem solves itself,” he said.
Referring to situations like Vincent’s family tragedy, Weiler said, “I think people that are handing out pills that could kill you ought to take notice.”
He added, “I don’t know what else to do. People are dying. It’s a real thing. I don’t know if the public understands how small of an amount of fentanyl can kill someone.”