At 4pm on Monday evening, where one would usually find state representatives milling about before their floor sessions, demonstrators gathered inside the State House to make one last plea to Governor Raimondo to veto Kristen’s Law, a statute which mandates a life sentence for individuals involved in the exchange of controlled substance in the case of those substance’s involvement in a fatal overdose. The mood, amplified by the echo of voices in the empty rotunda, was simultaneously mournful and resolute.
“My frustration has been that Rhode Island’s Attorney General [Peter Kilmartin] has been moving in a direction that’s backwards of progressive reform in regards to the opiate problem,” attorney general candidate Alan Gordon told RI Future prior to the event.
Haley McKee was one of the first to speak, providing an account of her own experience struggling with drug addiction. She spoke to a her experience of “interchangeable buyers and sellers,” or those individuals she had encountered who were simultaneously battling addiction and involved in drug sales—those who Kristen’s Law would target rather than work to treat.
“Please have mercy on these people, Governor Raimondo,” she said.
She also mentioned that while some state senators had been well-informed and charitable, many state representatives state that there were “coercive factors forcing them to vote in favor” of the bill, or who claimed to not know anything about the bill the day before it went up for a vote. “Shame on you,” McKee said. “November is coming.”
Lisa Peterson, with the Women’s Action Initiative, spoke next, on the inability for heightened penalties regarding substance sales to combat addiction in the state. “Currently, the ACI is the largest factory of private health services in the state of Rhode Island,” she said, regarding the medication-assisted treatment included in RI Future’s reporting on Kristen’s Law last week. “They have neither the staff or the resources to effectively meet treatment needs of individuals who are incarcerated. And once released, people with substance-abuse disorders face numerous barriers to reintegration, including symptoms of trauma due to incarceration, exclusion from housing and employment, and exacerbated stress which can lead to a higher rate of relapse, exacerbating the cycle of substance abuse.”
Rep. Moira Walsh, one of the most vehement opposers of Kristen’s Law when it passed through the House, was one of the most solemn speakers at the event. “I have no illusions that coming here today will convince Governor
Raimondo to veto this bill,” she started, “mostly because Governor Raimondo herself knows how bad this bill is. We said as much when she said she would revisit this in a couple of years. There is no public signing, she is signing behind closed doors, because she is well aware that this is a travesty.”
Walsh said that she reflected on the irony of the situation, when she was at a press conference regarding Raimondo’s opposition to President Trump’s family separation policy, that Raimondo herself planned to sign a law “to take other people’s children away.”
“If the Governor signs this bill into law today,” she said, fighting tears, “she should go ahead and change her affiliation, because there is nothing democratic about this, and she should be ashamed.”
At the end of the demonstration, an alternative vision of the bill was passed around for signatures—one which looked altogether different than the one on Gov. Raimondo’s desk a few feet away.