Baker wants tougher penalties for drug dealers

Gov. Charlie Baker is targeting the peddlers of dangerous narcotics with a proposal to enhance penalties for dealing drugs that lead to overdose deaths. The governor is proposing to make drug dealers whose distribution of those substances leads to the death of a user subject to prosecution for manslaughter, similar to the way the state treats someone whose decision to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs leads to the death of another driver or pedestrian.

Positive signs in the state’s fight against opioid addictions have emerged since the beginning of the year with 53 fewer people dying of opioid overdoses in the first six months of 2017, a 5 percent decrease from the same period last year.

“It is only through education, prevention, and treatment that, together, we will solve this public health crisis. Our focus must remain on these three pillars of our strategy. While maintaining that focus, however, we should also ensure that those who cause our citizens the most harm by illegally selling drugs that kill people are held accountable for their actions,” Baker wrote in a bill filing letter to lawmakers.

The proposal comes as legislators are preparing to return from a summer recess after Labor Day for what House Speaker Robert DeLeo has promised to be a busy fall with criminal justice reform among the issues leadership wants to tackle.

Baker, in his filing letter, said his proposal draws from a number of ideas that are already pending before the Legislature in various bills filed this session.

The bill would also link state drug classifications, with the exception of marijuana and already scheduled drugs, to emergency federal drug scheduling. The linkage would eliminate any lag time between the federal scheduling of new, synthetic drugs like Carfentanil and 251-NBOMe, known as “N-bomb,” and state action to classify those drugs for prosecution.

Gubernatorial candidate Setti Warren, the Democratic mayor of Newton, ripped Baker for “flip-flopping.” He pointed to a 2014 questionnaire in which Baker, who was then a candidate for governor, responded “no” when asked if he supported the enactment of additional mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses.

Baker also said “yes” when asked if he supported the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses under state law.

Warren, whose campaign said Baker was guilty of a “flip flop on mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses,” said Baker’s plan is “more about politics than good policy.”

“Gov. Baker’s proposal to incarcerate more people in response to the opioid epidemic runs contrary to everything we’ve learned in the failed war on drugs, and to Baker’s own 2014 campaign promises. Mandatory minimum sentences do not make our communities safer and they do not reduce illegal drug use. Those are facts,” the mayor said in a statement.