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Legislation passed by House, Senate will charge drug distributors with homicide if their clients fatally overdose

RICHMOND, Va. — New legislation passed by Virginia’s House and Senate will allow prosecutors to charge drug distributors and manufacturers with felony homicide when their customers fatally overdose.

Lawmakers on Saturday passed HB 2528, a law requiring that those who provide drugs that result in death be charged with felony homicide, or second-degree murder, and spend between 5 and 40 years  in prison.

Virginia joined lawmakers in Connecticut, Hawaii and Mississippi in pushing for homicide charges against those who sell or produce drugs resulting in fatal overdoses – a definition that includes dealers and manufacturers.

On Saturday, Del. Sam Rasoul (D – Roanoke) expressed concern that the bill could potentially imprison those who provided drugs to their friends. “When we talk about gift, we’re talking about an individual (who) gave some drugs to a friend, and then that friend overdosed, we’re talking about felony homicide here.”

But the legislation includes a clause that may provide protection for those who distribute drugs without receiving money in return, like in the case of a friend gifting a friend a substance that they then fatally overdose on. “…The proposal provides a reduced penalty under certain conditions if the drug was distributed only as an accommodation,” the bill states.

Between 2011 and 2018, Virginia saw 8,976 deaths due to drug overdoses, galvanizing tougher approaches to the War on Drugs. But in that same time span, just 23 individuals were given increased sentences for selling controlled substances associated with an overdose death.

Under current law, drug induced homicide cases are taken to federal court under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Moreover, a loophole in Virginia law dictates that offenders who manufacture or distribute drugs that lead to an overdose death can only be convicted of homicide “if the death is so closely related in time, place, and causal connection as to be part of the same felonious criminal enterprise.”

But Commonwealth’s Attorneys in Virginia have long argued that they needed a tool that is just as strong as the national legislation to hold dealers and traffickers accountable in state court and to close the loophole that allows offenders to stay in the clear as long as the overdose didn’t happen in front of them on the day of sale.

If the recipient’s use of the drug was the proximate cause of the death,  HB 2428 will enable prosecutors to pursue homicide charges – regardless of the time or place death occurred.

The question of liability in the case of an overdose has been repeatedly considered in Virginia’s General Assembly, but all bills attempting to define dealer and manufacturer accountability have repeatedly died in session – until 2019.

Now, HB 2528 awaits Governor Northam’s signature. If signed, it will become law on July 1.

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