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AG-backed bill would increase penalties for selling drug resulting in death in Iowa
DES MOINES — Delivery of a drug resulting in a death would carry up to a 25-year sentence under a bill proposed by Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird.
The bill passed subcommittees in both the Iowa House and Senate on Wednesday.
Currently, the maximum charge that can be pursued against a person who sells a drug resulting in death is for the delivery itself, a Class C felony. Prosecutors can pursue an involuntary manslaughter charge, but that penalty is a lesser Class D felony.
The bill would make the sale of a drug resulting in death a Class B felony, putting it on the same level as attempted murder and killing a person while driving intoxicated. Marijuana is exempt from the bill.
A Class B felony is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
Bird, a Republican, said during a Senate subcommittee on the bill that the proposal aims to address a rising rate of overdoses in Iowa.
“It’s so important that we can seek justice for those victims and their families, so I’m very encouraged and looking forward to working with the governor and the Legislature as we move forward,” she said in an interview.
Iowa has one of the lowest overdose death rates in the United States — Iowa ranked fifth-lowest of the 50 states in 2021 — but the number of deaths has been increasing, following national trends, over the past several years.
In 2021, 470 Iowans died of drug overdoses, according to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office.
Iowa elected officials have been sounding alarms about an increase in overdose deaths in the state in recent years, driven in part by an increased presence of fentanyl, a potent opioid.
Bird said raising the penalties would bring the law into line with the severity of the crime.
“It is not dealt with the way that it should be, and the way that some other states and even federal law would deal with it,” she said.
But some lobbyists and advocates were concerned that the bill would be counterproductive, bringing harsh charges for situations that may not warrant it.
Lisa Davis-Cook, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association for Justice, said the organization, which is registered against the bill, has concerns about whether the bill would act as a deterrent.
“What about that college kid who shares drugs with a friend then leaves, and that friend dies? So they can’t report the overdose. Are those really the people that we want to be charging with a Class B felony?” Davis-Cook said.
Democratic Rep. Ross Wilburn of Ames was the sole lawmaker to not sign on to passing the bill out of a subcommittee. He said he’s not opposed to the bill, but he would like to gather information about the bill’s impact on minorities and see the details of a similar bill expected to come out of Reynolds’ office.
Responding to concerns, Bird said she thinks the penalty proposed in the bill is the right approach. She noted the penalty is lower than the federal charge, which carries up to a 40-year sentence.
“When someone provides illegal drugs to someone and those drugs kill that person, we need to have a law that takes account of that,” she said.
Mahaska County Attorney Andrew Ritland said he’s been working to get the law changed for a few years, after a woman died of a drug overdose in his county.
Ashley Shafer, a 24-year-old from Oskaloosa, died in 2019 after being injected with methamphetamine. Three men that gave her the drug took her body to a river and did not report the death.
In that case, a Class C felony was the harshest penalty Ritland could pursue, he said. The Class D, involuntary manslaughter felony is also very difficult to prove, he said.
“It doesn’t really even begin to reflect the amount of harm that’s done in these sort of cases,” he said.
The bill also creates an exemption for Iowa’s “good Samaritan” law, which provides legal protections for a person who calls emergency services when they or another person are experiencing an overdose.
Upcoming Reynolds bill addresses fentanyl
Reynolds said in her Condition of the State address she would be introducing a bill that would increase the sentences for selling fentanyl, and double or triple the penalty if the sale results in a death.
“I’m calling on the Legislature to increase penalties for manufacturing and distributing fentanyl in any amount,” she said during her address on Jan. 10. “That means longer sentences and higher fines, even where the quantity is small. And when an overdose leads to death or serious injury, the sentences will be even steeper.”
Reynolds has proposed punishing the sale of 5 grams or less of fentanyl with up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000; between 5 and 50 grams with 25 years and up to $100,000; and more than 50 grams with 50 years and a fine of up to $1 million.
If the sale results in a death, the punishment could be two to three times higher, and it would be two times higher if a person manufactures or delivers fentanyl in the presence of a minor.
Reynolds’ Office of Drug Control Policy is registered undecided on Bird’s bill because Reynolds will be introducing a similar bill, but a lobbyist said the office is generally supportive of the measure.
“We are absolutely supportive of the concept of a stronger deterrent for those folks that are trafficking these extremely deadly drugs into the state of Iowa,” said Susie Sher, a lobbyist with Reynolds’ drug control office.
Tom Barton of the Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.