Amid reports that Gov. Raimondo is planning on signing Kristen’s Law (H 7715)—a bill passed in the House last week which mandates a life sentence for individuals who sell controlled substances involved in fatal overdoses—many are saying that the bill will only increase the number of overdose deaths, including one of the governor’s own appointees to the team dedicated to reducing fatal overdoses in the state.
In an interview on Tuesday, Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich from the Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force, told RI Future that Kristen’s Law won’t decrease overdoses. Instead, it will “take away the focus of what we really need to be doing with this epidemic.”
Made up of stakeholders from public safety agencies, recovery support services, insurance professionals, and public health researchers, among others, the Task Force was established by Gov. Raimondo in 2015 to develop a “comprehensive strategy to combat addiction and overdose” in Rhode Island. Dr. Rich, a professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, serves as an expert advisor on the team.
“It almost magnifies the addiction,” he said. “Every time you arrest someone, you make their addiction worse. You’re making their risk of overdose worse if you lock them up and take away their tolerance, and then release them, particularly now that there’s fentanyl in the supply. So you’re increasing the risk of overdose deaths with this capture, recapture system that we have. And we’re not getting people to stop using.”
Dr. Rich explained that a better path for Rhode Island would be to “ramp up” treatment in the state. He pointed to a program initiated by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2016, which screens incarcerated individuals for drug addiction and provides medication-assisted treatment (MAT), In less than a year since the start of the program, the DOC reported a 61 percent drop in overdose deaths for individuals post-incarceration, and a 12 percent drop in overdose deaths statewide.
“That program would be nothing without continuation on the outside,” Dr. Rich added. “We need to roll these medicines out and encourage people to take them.”
Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, expressed concern that heightened penalties would only deter individuals from asking for help in the case of an overdose. “It’s placing a lot of faith in the criminal justice system to pick up the phone to try and help somebody having an overdose knowing that you potentially face a life sentence in prison if things go the wrong way,” Brown said.
Proponents have argued that Kristen’s Law is targeted at prosecuting “drug kingpins,” but both Dr. Rich and Brown expressed skepticism that the bill actually provides for that goal. A provision was introduced on the House floor to prevent Kristen’s Law from being applied to those suffering from drug addiction themselves, but this stipulation was not included in the final version of the House’s bill. “Without that,” Brown said, “we think the door is wide open for individuals who share drugs with a friend, a family member—where a small amount of money has changed hands or some other exchange has occurred—and that puts them well within the scope of the bill.”
The governor’s apparent support for the bill has distraught some in the recovery community, including Michael Galipeau, current interim president of the Rhode Island User’s Union. Speaking on his own behalf, he told RI Future, “My reaction to the governor’s support is exactly what I told the governor’s office: if she signs this bill into law, I will actively work with the Matt Brown campaign to make sure that he’s the one to take the office next.”
“If she’s not going to take this seriously,” Galipeau said, “then we need somebody else in office.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider Kristen’s Law on Wednesday at 4pm in room 313 of the State House.