‘Parker’s Law’ would put drug dealers behind bars for overdose deaths

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David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, File

Under Parker’s Law, people charged with sale or intent to sell drugs could face an additional 20 years to life without parole in prison and a fine of up to $1 million for each person who dies or suffers serious bodily injury. 

Ever since her son Parker died of a drug overdose four years ago, Cordie Rodenbaugh has spent her time talking at town halls and college campuses about addiction and drug use among students.

Rodenbaugh, a Madison resident, has even sponsored a workshop in her own living room to teach people how to use Narcan, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses. And this year, she began lobbying at the state capitol for Parker’s Law, a bill named after her son that would make it easier for prosecutors to go after anyone who provides drugs that lead to an overdose — a bill she believes would help prevent deaths like Parker’s.

“I feel so good about it (the bill),” Rodenbaugh said. “You have to be accountable for what you do. And if you cause bodily harm, if you cause a death, there’s repercussions.”

Rodenbaugh began touting H.B. 867 after she met state Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy at a town hall in Kosciusko, where she spoke of her son, who was a junior at Mississippi State University in 2014 when he died after taking synthetic LSD given to him by a friend.

In 2016, an Oktibbeha county jury convicted Skylar O’Kelly, who provided Parker the drugs, of drug trafficking and “depraved heart” murder, or second-degree murder. The state court of appeals overturned the depraved heart murder conviction last September. The attorney general’s office is appealing the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon

Mississippi House of Representatives.

Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon

Under the new bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, people charged with sale or intent to sell drugs could face an additional 20 years to life without parole in prison and a fine of up to $1 million for each person who dies or suffers serious bodily injury from the drugs involved.

The bill also outlines penalties for heroin or fentanyl transfer and possession with intent to transfer that would be greater than those currently imposed under their classifications as Schedule I and II drugs, respectively.

On Thursday, Rodenbaugh watched as some members of the House Judiciary A committee raised their arms to show her the blue wristbands — which Rodenbaugh had given them, and which read, “PARKER’S LAW / VOTE FOR HB 867” — they were wearing. The bill unanimously passed the committee and will now go to the House floor.

The move to make providing drugs that lead to death or injury a felony will help hold drug dealers accountable, supporters of the bill argue. The bill would bring Mississippi in line with how the federal government handles such cases, Dowdy said. Since 1986, when Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, federal guidelines have required 20 years to life in prison if “death or serious injury” results from trafficking.

This is the second year Baker has introduced the bill, drawn from a set of recommendations made by the governor’s Opioid and Heroin Study Task Force in 2017.

The bill was tweaked following concerns that it would penalize friends or family members who provide drugs, not just dealers, said Dowdy, who is helping shape the legislation. Last year’s version, which died in committee, would have enabled prosecutors to charge anyone who provided drugs that resulted in death or serious bodily injury.

Per this year’s bill, prosecutors could charge people for another person’s drug overdose caused by drugs if they were also charged with transfer or possession with intent to transfer two or more grams, or 10 or more dosage units.

“Any friend that decides they want to sell you heroin or fentanyl ain’t no friend,” Baker said in an interview.

Drug policy reform advocates against the bill say two grams is a low threshold that could result in the unintended prosecution of friends and family members, as well as target fellow drug users and people struggling with addiction.

“Drug-induced homicide” laws like the one proposed in Mississippi do not actually reduce overdose deaths, which continue to rise each year, said Lindsay LaSalle, director of public health law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.

A 2017 report by the Drug Policy Alliance found that efforts to prosecute drug-induced homicides that were aimed at fentanyl have increased in recent years, amid the backdrop of the nation’s current opioid crisis.

“The research is also clear that there’s a phenomenon called the replacement effect,” LaSalle added. When a dealer is incarcerated, the drug market subsumes demand with a new dealer, or with existing dealers taking a bigger share in the market, she said.

“These types of bills are just a knee-jerk reaction to a public health problem,” LaSalle said.

Christina Dent, a drug policy reform advocate who leads discussions around the state, concurs, adding the state needs to address the underlying reason for deaths from fentanyl overdoses by enabling a legal and regulated market.

“Mississippi has done some great work on criminal justice reform in the last couple of years,” Dent said. “I’d see this as being in direct competition with the reforms that we have seen here. Although I’d firmly believe that the people behind it think it will help, I think it will be incredibly harmful and cause a lot of sorrow.”

Cheryl Howell, who runs the drug awareness group Someone’s Child, said such a law would deter people from calling for help in the case of an overdose.

But Howell, who lost her daughter to an overdose in 2014, understands where Rodenbaugh is coming from.

“Cordie (Rodenbaugh) has got a good heart and a good soul, and she’s trying to do good,” Howell said.

Currently, at least 20 states, including Louisiana and Tennessee, have drug-induced homicide laws on their books, many of which date back to the 1980s.

Dowdy estimated that Mississippi might see 40 or 50 such prosecutions a year. Preliminary data gathered by the Bureau of Narcotics have confirmed around 300 overdose deaths last year, with at least 44 of the state’s 82 counties reporting one or more deaths, Dowdy said.

Rodenbaugh said she is slated to meet with Governor Phil Bryant this week about the bill. Bryant has previously indicated his support of such a measure.