Governor vetoes bill that would treat drug overdose deaths as felony murder

A needle used for heroin injection lies in the woods off Jeff Davis Highway in Richmond, where a woman was spending the night. Photo by Julia Rendleman.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday vetoed a bill that would have made it a felony homicide to sell, distribute, manufacture or gift drugs that cause a fatal overdose.

The legislation was condemned by some groups who argued it would penalize those struggling with addiction for giving or selling drugs to a fellow user and could cause more deaths by discouraging them from calling for help during overdoses.

But prosecutors argued they need the legislation to close a loophole in Virginia law that restricts their ability to go after drug dealers.

Northam had tried to amend the legislation so the felony act only applied to selling or manufacturing drugs, and added an affirmative defense if the seller helped the person overdosing. The General Assembly rejected his recommendation during their veto session.

“While I share the goal of addressing the opioid crisis and ensuring drug dealers are punished for supplying dangerous drugs, this bill goes beyond drug dealers and would punish individuals who are themselves struggling with addiction,” Northam said in his veto statement. “The way to help individuals struggling with addiction is to ensure they receive proper treatment.”

In a news release, Republican lawmakers pointed to the high number of drug fatalities surging through Virginia in light of the opioid epidemic. Though slightly fewer people died of a drug overdose last year, fatal drug overdoses remain the leading cause of unnatural death in Virginia, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, argued that a person who sells someone heroin laced with fentanyl, an incredibly dangerous and deadly opioid, “is no less a killer than if he had pointed a gun and pulled the trigger.

“Constituents are losing friends and family members. When we tried to take action, Gov. Northam stood in the way,” Hugo continued. “It’s appalling.”

Northam argued in his veto statement that the state should continue to focus on the “biological, psychological and social factors that foster addiction so that those factors can be addressed and mitigated in order to save Virginia’s families and communities from the destruction of drug addiction.”