Lawmakers say ‘Death by Dealer’ legislation will lower overdoses; advocates disagree

Local lawmakers are calling for stronger legislation to hold drug dealers accountable, after a spate of overdoses that left six dead a little more than a week ago.  

The proposed law would charge drug dealers responsible for overdose deaths with homicide, lawmakers said at a Thursday press conference following the arraignments of two men involved in sales of cocaine laced with fentanyl that resulted in two deaths.  

“Our message is clear,” District Attorney Timothy Sini said. “If you’re selling drugs in Suffolk County and you kill someone, we will hold you accountable.” 

Under the proposed legislation, homicide charges would be upgraded to a class A felony if the drug is classified as a schedule II narcotic or other substances are mixed in. Dealers would also be charged with a class A felony if they’re aware a buyer is under the influence of narcotics at the time of the sale, has participated in a rehabilitation program or overdosed within the last 30 days.  

“We need to convene immediately to adopt this legislation to hold dealers accountable, so that we can get them off the street, keep them off the street, and deter other dealers from selling drugs in New York state that cause loss of life,” Assemblymember Jodi Giglio told The Suffolk Times.  

Ms. Giglio said she’s sending a letter to the new governor, Kathy Hochul, and the speakers of the senate and assembly to ask the codes committee to “convene immediately” and decide if the bill “should go to the floor.” 

“This will give law enforcement the tools needed to hold drug dealers accountable.”

District Attorney Timothy Sini

The proposal, however, has not been embraced by some lawyers and advocates. Melissa Moore, the New York director at nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, called the bill “misguided.” 

“All the evidence shows us that this just doesn’t work if the goal is to keep people safe,” she said. “Research consistently shows that neither increased arrests nor increased severity of criminal punishment for drug law violations results in less use.” 

Ms. Moore argued that more punitive legislation could deter people from calling for help if someone is experiencing an overdose.  

“When we have a moment where there’s a push for drug induced homicide laws, or other things along those lines, it really undermines people thinking — in the moment when the worst has happened and somebody is overdosing — that they can call for help,” she said.  

She added that efforts should focus on making sure people are aware of resources like fentanyl test strips, that can check for the drug in any substances they might be using, and funding harm reduction programs.  

“Unfortunately, I think part of this uptick and part of what we’ve seen over the last year is because Governor [Andrew] Cuomo withheld funds from harm reduction programs all across the state,” she said. “That’s led to — in the most crucial moment, where all the risk factors for overdose are through the roof — you have less actual support for folks than you should because of these withholdings, and it’s driving a really dangerous scenario.” 

She said there are a couple of harm reduction programs on Long Island that have faced “really severe staffing issues and budget” issues over the course of the pandemic. Community Action for Social Justice, for example — which hosted several Narcan trainings on the North Fork last week — temporarily had to go into “volunteer mode” to survive. 

Tina Wolf, executive director and co-founder of CASJ, said the nonprofit is “100% grant-funded,” and during COVID the state wasn’t paying contracts. Although it’s operating at full capacity now, “without that monthly reimbursement, we were actually pretty close to shutting down for a while last summer,” she said.  

“I don’t know that [the death by dealer] legislation will help prevent, and definitely not eradicate [overdoses] from happening in the future,” Ms. Wolf added. “Policymaking should be well thought out. It should be scientifically based [and] take into account all perspectives. But the families need to grieve. And that’s not policymaking.” Twenty states have passed “drug-induced homicide” laws, according to a report published by the Drug Policy Alliance. The report argues that such legislation does not deter drug use or sales, undermines Good Samaritan laws and contributes to preventable deaths, fosters misuse of prosecutorial discretion and perpetuates racial disparities. 

Ms. Moore pointed to West Virgina as an example, which has a drug-induced homicide law on the books and one of the highest overdose rates in the country. She further argued that prohibition leads to dealers smuggling more potent drugs. 

“As we’re sitting here talking shortly after the 50th anniversary of the war on drugs being declared by President Nixon, if the war on drugs and criminalization had worked, we wouldn’t be talking about overdoses 50 years later,” she said.  

Long Island lawmakers proposed similar legislation in 2015 that did not pass both the New York Senate and Assembly. Ms. Giglio said she’s not sure why, but if “death by dealer” legislation had “passed the Senate and Assembly prior to June [2021] session closing, these six people may still be alive.” 

“If the drug dealers weren’t selling deadly drugs, because they were held accountable for homicide and for death, then those drug dealers would be in jail,” she added. “It’s my opinion and the district attorney of Suffolk County’s opinion that this would deter those murder crimes from happening.” 

Criminal defense lawyer Anthony LaPinta suggested the proposed “Death by Dealer” legislation in New York could complicate prosecution.  

“While this proposed legislation is clearly well intended, unless this law is carefully and precisely drafted, there will be significant evidentiary issues that could impede successful prosecutions, such as being able to prove the causal relationship between the actual drugs sold and the cause of death,” he said.  

Ms. Giglio said the district attorneys for Nassau and Suffolk counties “know what they need in order to be able to prosecute these cases and hold the drug dealers accountable for homicide and for murder.” 

Mr. Sini said on Thursday that the bipartisan bill would empower law enforcement, who “shouldn’t have to hold strategy meetings and brainstorming sessions about how to put murderers behind bars.” 

“This will give law enforcement the tools needed to hold drug dealers accountable,” he said. “It will give family members who lost a loved one justice, and perhaps most importantly, as a practical matter, and I truly believe this, it will provide a deterrent to drug dealers.” 

Senator Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), who co-sponsored the bill in the state senate, said there have been “various iterations through the years” but this time, it “needs to pass.” 

“We need to establish and prove that if you kill someone by selling drugs, you actually are facing a more severe charge than the sale itself,” he said.