RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Advocates are hopeful a Senate Bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Roy Cooper on Thursday will provide families and victims of drug overdose relief while also deterring the distribution of lethal drugs.
“I think it’s extremely important for families to have that closure,” said Vanessa Sapp, a mother in Onslow County. Sapp lost her 21-year-old son, Jason, to a drug overdose in 2016. He was given fentanyl.
Sapp said her son was an A student in school and an MVP athlete. She added, “The time my son passed away, he was one of the first individuals who followed through with the charges, and I had a lot of parents reaching out to me asking how we were able to do that. Back then, you had to have so much evidence.”
The Onslow County mother said the person responsible for her son’s death is in prison serving time for second-degree murder; however, she said it was a rare occurrence for families who have been put in similar situations.
“Those individuals who were charged, it will never bring my son back but it does give us some closure,” Sapp said.
Eddie Caldwell is the Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. Caldwell said the group has supported the piece of legislation and made it a priority item for this year’s legislation.
“Every step in the fight against these illegal drugs is a positive step,” said Caldwell. He added, “The current law for Death by Distribution requires there to be a sale of the drugs that killed the victim and that was creating a problem for sheriff’s, police departments, and district attorneys across the state because in many cases either a sale didn’t occur, it was a transfer, or the deceased person could not testify whether they had paid for the drugs or not. It made it difficult to prosecute some of these very tragic cases.”
Caldwell pointed out that the bill will increase prison time for people who are caught and continue to distribute and said the offense is now a Class C felony. He also said their focus is not only to help prosecute and deter lethal drugs from getting into the hands of residents but also focus on the victims and their families in these cases.
Lee Storrow, the Senior Director of External Affairs at Community Education Group, said he continues to be active in a coalition committed to preventing overdose deaths and working to reduce crime in North Carolina. He believes that the bill makes significant changes.
Storrow said, “When North Carolina passed the Death by Distribution law four years ago, it was specifically framed to go after high-level traffickers. Lawmakers specifically said we’re not trying to go after friends or family members of those who died from an accidental overdose– This bill broadens the law so broadly that it actually does just that.” He added, “It doesn’t just go after people who sell drugs, but if you’re someone who shares drugs that results in death, you can be charged with a crime.”
Storrow worries the expansion in prosecution will make people more hesitant to call 911 in an overdose emergency. Although the state’s Good Samaritan law was also broadened in the bill, Storrow hopes to see a larger expansion on the law to keep people safe who are trying to do the right thing.
“There is no evidence that shows that the Death by Distribution law actually results in fewer overdoses,” said Storrow. He hopes lawmakers will not only jump to the criminal justice system but also hopes to see to see changes that will address the public health crisis.