AUGUSTA — A state senator from Kennebec County made an impassioned appeal to his fellow lawmakers Friday to try to stem the flow of illegal drugs that are killing Mainers at a rate of more than one a day.

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, presented a bill that would create a new manslaughter charge for drug dealers who provide illegal drugs that result in a death. Cyrway choked up and paused as he described the impact of Maine’s ongoing opioid crisis, noting it was likely every person in the room had been affected by at least one overdose death, if not more.

“Drug dealers are spreading this poison throughout our communities,” Cyrway said. “This measure will make drug traffickers think twice about furnishing illegal drugs in our state. If it does not, hopefully we can prosecute them and get them off the streets before they kill someone else. This should be an emergency bill. Most of you have lost someone, friends or family, someone dear to you. It’s time. It may not be in the statute clear, but I want to make it clear. I want to make it clear to everyone we are not going to tolerate it.”

While the bill would make it more clear that drug dealers could face manslaughter charges, it would not necessarily increase the potential penalties that a drug dealer can face after a fatal overdose.

A manslaughter charge could lead a Class A felony conviction, the state’s highest level of crime, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. However, prosecutors can already seek different Class A felony charges that carry similar punishments, opponents of the bill testified Friday.

The proposal comes as Maine’s overdose deaths climbed for the fifth straight year in 2016, soaring nearly 40 percent to claim a record 378 people. Opioid drugs, especially fentanyl and heroin, caused most of the deaths, according to figures released Thursday by the Maine Attorney General’s Office. The 378 fatalities surpassed the previous record of 272 set in 2015.

Also known as a “reckless homicide” law, Cyrway’s bill is modeled after a law put in place in New Hampshire, where the state’s lawmakers are currently debating even stiffer penalties for drug dealers. Cyrway said prosecutors in New Hampshire recently convicted a woman under the new law and she was sentenced to eight years in prison.

But John Pelletier, an attorney who works with the Legislature’s Criminal Law Advisory Commission, said prosecutors in that group did not believe the bill was necessary.

“This is already subject to prosecution,” Pelletier said. “We have a crime that is reckless homicide and that is manslaughter.” Pelletier said a drug dealer could also be charged with reckless negligence, which was also a manslaughter-level crime.

Pelletier said that anybody selling heroin “in the midst” of Maine’s ongoing drug crisis is clearly reckless. He said a drug dealer who knowingly supplies heroin that is mixed with fentanyl, which can be 50 times stronger than heroin, was also being criminally negligent. “If that causes the death, it’s a manslaughter and it can be prosecuted as a manslaughter,” Pelletier said. Still another crime on the books, “aggravated trafficking,” can be charged when a person traffics a drug that results in a death. Pelletier said that also was a Class A offense, which has the same sentencing provisions as a manslaughter conviction.

While the state already has several such ways to charge a drug dealer when a death results, they are difficult crimes to prove.

“There are prosecutions, but they are difficult prosecutions, because unfortunately the witness is no longer around,” Pelletier said. “It’s not, you know, so-and-so died and everybody knows that Joey is his supplier. That’s not going to get you a conviction before a jury in a Maine court, regardless of what the statute says. You need evidence and you need specific evidence.”

Pelletier also said the way Cyrway had drafted his bill was “overly broad.” He suggest the language of the proposed law should be specific and pin the cause of death directly to the illegal drugs.

Also speaking against the bill Friday were representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Health Equity Alliance.

Ross Hicks, the harm reduction coordinator for the alliance, said he was in long-term recovery but in the last year alone he’s lost four people he knows to overdoses.

“I certainly understand the passion,” Hicks said. But he explained that increased enforcement and stiffer penalties for drug crimes did not appear to have any impact on drug use.

Hicks said in 2016 the U.S. spent more than $51 billion in its war against drugs. “But we are no closer to finding a solution to the widespread use of drugs,” he said. “Perhaps it is time to quit trying the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”

The committee has scheduled a work session for Cyrway’s bill, L.D. 42, for Friday, April 7.

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