Massachusetts state senators approved a massive criminal justice reform bill last night that would eliminate many drug-related mandatory minimum sentences (including those arbitrarily connected to "school zones"), restrict the use of solitary confinement, decriminalize sex between minors of similar ages, and set the age the criminal justice system considers you an adult at 19.
Unfortunately, it will also introduce a terrible new tool to the drug war.
To satisfy the urges of the state's Republican governor, Charlie Baker, the reform bill (S.2185) was amended yesterday to charge anybody who deals drugs with second-degree murder if someone they sold drugs to dies of an overdose.
Here's the amendment:
Any person while in the course of trafficking or unlawfully distributing a controlled substance as defined in Section 32E who knowingly or intentionally manufactures, distributes, dispenses, delivers, gives away, barters, administers or provides any amount of a controlled substance or counterfeit substance which results in death shall be punished as murder in the second degree as defined by section 1 of chapter 265. (b) Lack of knowledge of any previous health conditions shall not be a defense to any person who violates the provisions of this section.
According to WBUR, this amendment has itself been amended in order to make it clear that the law is intended to go after dealers, not people who share drugs. If that's the actual intent, Massachusetts Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr may have underestimated the creativity of prosecutors by including the words "barters," "administers," and "provides."
Just look at Florida to see how this legislation goes astray. The state has had a law on the books that allows prosecutors to charge drug dealers with first-degree murder when somebody dies of an overdose. The law's application has absolutely not been limited to trying to lock away drug dealers. A woman was recently charged with murder when her friend died of a drug overdose. The woman had taken money from her friend and introduced her to the dealer, but she was not a drug dealer herself.
It's a frustrating and chronic problem. Even as they recognize that heavy mandatory minimum sentences have not been successful in stopping drug use, politicians—and, honestly, a significant part of the population—cannot set aside the idea that this crisis can be stopped by harshly punishing the right people.