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Bill increases penalties for drug dealers in overdose deaths

March 10, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota law enforcement agencies urged state lawmakers on Wednesday to support a bill that would enact harsher penalties for drug traffickers if a death results from the sale of their drugs.

Police chiefs and law enforcement associations told the Senate Judiciary Committee that stiffer penalties are needed, especially as such fatalities mount across the state.

“Currently, law enforcement in North Dakota has no ability to hold these individuals responsible in a meaningful way,” Fargo police Chief David Zibolski said.

The bill would make it a Class A felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison for someone convicted of trafficking drugs that cause a death. Rep. Kim Koppelman, a West Fargo Republican who is the bill’s main sponsor, said the current penalty is a lower felony charge punishable by up to five years in prison.

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“The penalty is the same as that for merely distributing a controlled substance,” said Koppelman, who called it a “flaw” in state law “that needs to be fixed.”

“With the proliferation of drugs and the rates of addiction in our state, this is an important enhancement to help reduce this problem,” he said.

The House passed the bill last month on a 77-16 vote. It could reach the Senate floor next week.

State Health Department data show overdose deaths in North Dakota increased from 43 in 2014 to 73 in 2019.

Law enforcement officials told the Senate Committee the problem is worsening.

Zibolski said fatal overdoses in North Dakota’s largest city increased from 11 in 2019 to 19 last year. As of last week, three people have died this year from overdose deaths, he said.

Bismarck police Chief Dave Draovitch said his city had 10 overdose deaths in 2020, and has had four already this year.

The legislation would not affect the state’s so-called “Good Samaritan” law, which is aimed at saving lives and gives immunity to people who call for help when someone is experiencing a drug overdose.

Under North Dakota law, a good Samaritan who calls 911 in the event of an overdose cannot be prosecuted for possessing, sharing or using a controlled substance. Law enforcement officials said drug traffickers typically don’t stick around if an overdose occurs.

“These individuals are not addict-to-addict dealers, but in fact are insidious criminals who deliver a variety of narcotic mixtures ... for the sole purpose of criminal enterprise,” Zibolski said.