Republicans float proposal to increase penalties for overdose deaths

By: - February 3, 2023 6:00 am
Needles are seen littering the pavement in a lane near to a Safe Consumption van set up by Peter Krykant on September 25, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. Peter a recovering heroin addict and former drugs worker, has set up the drug consumption van where addicts can inject safely and take drugs under supervision. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Needles are seen littering the pavement in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Republican lawmakers are exploring ways to increase penalties for drug-related deaths. Under current law, first-degree reckless homicide charges may result in a class B felony, except for deaths caused by fatal overdoses. In a Feb. 1 memo, Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), put forward proposed legislation that would change that.

“Those who willingly distribute a deadly drug need to be held accountable for what they have done,” the memo states. There were more than 1,400 overdose deaths across the state in 2021, with many of the deaths linked to fentanyl. The synthetic opioid is 50 times more potent than heroin. Some varieties of fentanyl are even more potent, and can be resistant to the overdose-reversing medication Narcan. Last year, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office documented 523 drug-related deaths. Another 318 cases from 2022 are still pending, however, and not all of those will turn out the be caused by overdose.

“The synthetic opioid death rate in Wisconsin has skyrocketed over the last eight years,” the memo continues. “Policy makers have been playing catch up to modernize our laws to reflect the dangers of novel drugs. For example, last session, the Wisconsin Legislature passed Senate Bill 352 which increased the penalties for manufacturing, distributing, delivering, or possessing fentanyl “to more closely align with the penalties for heroin.” The memo stresses that “fentanyl is a dangerous and often deadly drug. Those who distribute it, knowing full well the likelihood of death, should be punished when they do cause death. Fentanyl poisoning IS murder, and it is high time we treat it as such.”

Over the past several years, fentanyl has dramatically reshaped the black market drug supply. Heroin cut without fentanyl, for example, has essentially disappeared in the city of Milwaukee. Deaths related to cocaine have also increased and diversified due to fentanyl contamination.

Police departments have also worked to treat overdose investigations more seriously. The Milwaukee police department’s Special Investigations Division (SID), for example, investigates suspicious overdose deaths. As does the Wauwatosa police department’s Special Operations Group (SOG). On Feb. 2, 2021, the Milwaukee PD also transferred its cell phone tracking and surveillance technologies from the Fusion Division to the SID. Originally designed as an anti-terrorism unit, the Fusion Division has become the department’s intelligence gathering hub. Logs detailing the Milwaukee PD’s use of cell tracking equipment shows the technology has been used for reckless homicide charges related to overdose deaths.

Laws that open people up to homicide charges due to overdose deaths were initially intended to target dealers. But  cases of drug use among loved ones and friends which result in death have resulted in similar charges. For example, someone who acquires heroin or cocaine from a dealer and gives it to their  spouse may be charged if that drug use becomes fatal. Lawyers and advocates have called on the state to strengthen its good Samaritan laws to curb such cases. Otherwise, drug users may become afraid to call for help when someone they know overdoses.

Wisconsin Examiner reached out to Allen’s office to ask whether these situations had been considered in drafting the  the legislation. “I am empathetic to the difference between a friend sharing drugs and a drug dealer, and also concerned about creating an easy loophole for criminal exploitation,” Allen told Wisconsin Examiner in a statement. “Solutions that address both of those concerns would be welcomed.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.