Va. bill would allow murder charge for dealers who sell drugs that kill

Supporters say the punishment is needed to help prevent deadly overdoses

ROANOKE, Va. – Virginia lawmakers want to take a new step to combat the opioid crisis that would mean harsher punishments for some drug dealers.

They hope to prevent overdose deaths by increasing penalties for drug dealers whose product kills someone by allowing prosecutors to charge them with murder. 20 states have already adopted these so-called drug-induced homicide laws.

The bill now only needs Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature after passing both Virginia houses last week.

Danny Gilbert says he supports the change. His 27-year-old daughter Jordan died in Roanoke in 2017 from an overdose after struggling with opioid addiction.

“We need to curb the drugs coming into our city, into this state, across the nation,” he said. “Go after the dealers and take them down. They need to understand they are killing all of our kids, parents.”

Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain, who represents Rockingham, explained on Senate floor Thursday that particularly deadly drugs like fentanyl laced in other opioids are the motivation behind the change.

“We’re making a concrete step in the direction of helping our communities stay safer, helping to protect our children, our friends, our neighbors from the deadly hazard of poison being peddled through our streets,” he said.

Lawmakers came to an agreement this session after some had tried for more than four years to get a measure like this one through to the governor.

Mike Doucette, who was the Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney for 11 years and who now heads the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, helped fight to get the bill passed.

“We need to get the message out that Virginia is no longer going to tolerate people who are selling heroin, fentanyl, carfentanyl,” Doucette told 10 News.

The bill covers all banned drugs -- Schedule I and Schedule II -- and would up the penalties for the dealer to five to 40 years in prison. Prosecutors could charge the dealer with felony murder, which carries the same punishment as second-degree murder.

These kinds of bills have had opposition.

Many opponents have said they can lead to situations where people who are with someone who overdoses are afraid to call 911 for fear they’ll face a murder charge. The Virginia bill draws the distinction between a dealer, who profits from a sale, and two friends using drugs together. Lawmakers hopes this language will prevent that fear.

If someone gives drugs to a victim who later dies, but doesn't sell them the drugs, they can still face a lesser charge -- a Class V felony, which has a sentence range of one to five years in prison.

The issue of friends being afraid to call 911 has been the holdup that’s prevented the bill from passing in previous years.

A post on the 10 News Facebook page about the issue has gotten comments both supporting and opposing it, with many saying drug dealers should not be held responsible to this degree.