by Brandon Jarvis

Senate Democrats killed a bill Wednesday afternoon from Sens. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) and John McGuire (R-Goochland) that would have made it a felony murder charge for anyone who manufactures, sells, or distributes fentanyl or heroin to someone who dies from an overdose. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has prioritized this legislation during the current session. 

All Democrats, except one, Russett Perry, a former Loudoun County prosecutor, voted against the bill. 

On Wednesday, prior to the Senate Courts of Justice Committee killing the bill, Youngkin spoke about this legislation and why he supports it. 

“Fentanyl is being used by drug dealers as an addictive step in the process, a horrible business of pulling in people, addicting them to horrific substances, and ruining their lives, and we’ve got to hold those people accountable,” he said during a conversation with the press. 

After the committee voted to kill the bill, Youngkin’s spokesperson, Christian Martinez, expressed disappointment at their decision. 

“It’s troubling that most Democrat legislators are once again siding with fentanyl makers and dealers over victims’ families,” he said. “As Governor Youngkin has said time and time again, any person who knowingly and intentionally distributes fentanyl should be charged and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We cannot continue to let makers and dealers get away with murder.” 

Several people who have lost loved ones to overdoses spoke in support of the bill at the committee meeting and talked about the impact the drug had on them and their families. They spoke through tears while holding pictures of their lost loved ones.

The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union does not support the bill and spoke in opposition to it during the meeting. 

​​“Overdose deaths in Virginia demand that we do more than double down on punitive measures that have already proven they don’t work,” said ACLU-VA Policy and Advocacy Strategist Shawn Weneta in a comment to Virginia Scope. “We don’t need additional incarceration: we need treatment, training, education, and resources. Virginian families deserve nothing less.”

Republicans view this legislation as a no-brainer that will save lives down the road. One woman speaking to the committee said the same dealer separately provided the pills that killed her family member and the son of another woman who was present speaking to the committee. 

“If we save one life, we are doing our job,” said Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County). 

Perry, the only Democrat to support the legislation, talked about why she supported the bill prior to the vote taking place. 

“If you are convicted of felony homicide in distribution, those are two separate offenses that occur on your criminal history,” she said. “When a prosecutor picks it up, they’re able to see not only that you distributed and how much time you got for it, but [that] you killed someone whenever you distributed. That is important because if you come back into the criminal justice system and are back on another charge of distribution, it would matter to me as a prosecutor if you have previously distributed and taken someone else’s life.” 

Perry ran in a tough election against Juan Pablo Segura in November. He repeatedly attacked her for being soft on crime during his campaign, and she would push back, citing her time as a prosecutor. 

Perry said in November, after the election, that she would support this legislation in the Senate. “Those who are trafficking in fentanyl are taking advantage of people struggling with addiction and should be held accountable. I support a separate and distinct charge of felony homicide in those cases.”

Perry also supports treatment for individuals suffering from addiction to these deadly drugs. 

“​​I think that we can look at this issue from a variety of ways to try to deal with it to try to attack it,” she said during the committee meeting. “Treatment is certainly an issue that I fully support.” 

Senate Majority Leader and Courts Committee Chair Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) voted against the bill.

 “I feel like a lot of the proposals that are being offered by the Republicans on fentanyl are a rehash of 1990’s era War on Drugs policy which has been proven not to solve anything,” he said during an interview Wednesday night. “I think fentanyl is mainly a combination of a mental health problem and a failure of law enforcement to have the resources necessary to catch people. I think we ought to be focusing our efforts on better interdiction and more treatments for people.”

Democrats have expressed concerns in the past that if this legislation were to be enacted, it could lead to someone not getting help for an individual who is overdosing. Current Virginia law protects individuals from prosecution if they are present with someone who is overdosing and they call for help.

“The worse the consequences are, the less likely people are to seek help when there’s an overdose,” Surovell said.

McDougle did not immediately provide comment after the meeting.

The committee unanimously supported a separate bill from Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) making it a felony to buy, sell or possess a pill-pressing machine. Permitted manufacturers would be excluded.

The committee also amended a bill from Sen. Bill Desteph (R-Va Beach) to create a task force to look into how best to address the fentanyl crisis. 

By vascope