The opioid crisis seems to be getting worse every year. NCDHHS reports that in 2021, over 4,000 North Carolinians died from opioid overdoses, up 22% from the prior year. Most deaths were related to the consumption of fentanyl.
One strategy for addressing the epidemic is punishing those who distribute deadly drugs. In 2019, the General Assembly enacted G.S. 14-18.4, making it a felony to sell a controlled substance that causes the death of a user. The law is commonly known as the death by distribution law. This session, the General Assembly passed a revised version of the law. This post explains the revisions.
The original law. The 2019 law made it a Class C felony to (1) sell a qualifying drug, including an opioid, cocaine, or methamphetamine (2) thereby proximately causing (3) the death of a user. Further, (4) the defendant must have acted “without malice,” perhaps because a person acting with malice could potentially be prosecuted for Class B2 second-degree murder by distribution of drugs under G.S. 14-17(b)(2). The 2019 law also created an aggravated Class B2 felony version of death by distribution for defendants with a qualifying drug conviction within the past seven years.
ABC11 has this story about the implementation of the 2019 law. It reports that death by distribution has not been charged at all in most counties, while it has been charged regularly in some others. Shea wrote about the original law here, and Phil wrote about defending death by distribution cases here.
Status of the revised version. Last week, the General Assembly passed S189 to revise the death by distribution law. It passed the Senate 45-0 and the House 81-20. Governor Cooper has not signed it, but it appears that it will become law without his signature shortly. Obviously, the measure passed by veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Unless something unexpected happens, the law will take effect on December 1, 2023, for offenses committed on or after that date. [Update: Governor Cooper signed the measure on September 28, 2023. The effective date remains December 1, 2023.]
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The summer before 14-year-old Alexander Neville would have entered high school, he sat both of his parents down at the kitchen table in their Aliso Viejo home and told them he’d been taking Oxycontin pills he bought on Snapchat.
He had self-medicated with pot in the past, but this was different.
“It has a hold on me, and I don’t know why,” he told them in 2020.
Alexander’s mother, Amy Neville, said they called a treatment program the next day and were waiting to hear back on rehab facilities. Alexander got a haircut, went to lunch with his dad and said goodnight to his parents before going up to his bedroom at the end of the day.
Lillianna Alfaro was a recent high school graduate raising a toddler and considering joining the Army when she and a friend bought what they thought was the anti-anxiety drug Xanax in December 2020.
The pills were fake and contained fentanyl, an opioid that can be 50 times as powerful as the same amount of heroin. It killed them both.
“Two years ago, I knew nothing about this,” said Holly Groelle, the mother of 19-year-old Alfaro, who lived in Appleton, Wisconsin. “I felt bad because it was something I could not have warned her about, because I didn’t know.”
Drug counterfeiters can acquire a pill press and a counterfeit pill mold to churn out counterfeit medications for less than $500. Unfortunately, “garage manufacturers” are not careful about manufacturing controls, and their products often contain fatal doses of fentanyl or other drugs. Since 2015, bootleg prescription drugs made with machines like these have killed unsuspecting Americans in 37 states.
Following the recent seizure of about five pounds of fentanyl and the ongoing problem of local overdoses, drugs in Onslow County continue to be a major concern.
Onslow County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Colonel Chris Thomas said fentanyl results in the overwhelming majority of overdoses in Onslow County, adding the problem is rarely heroin anymore. Last week, Thomas said the county had three overdoses but was able to revive all three of them with Narcan.
One of the biggest current problems, Thomas added, is that fentanyl is now being pressed into pill form as a way of concealment.
He said the local drug enforcement unit even seized a pill press in Jacksonville a few months ago that was being used for that very reason. Thankfully, Thomas said, the county has not yet seen fentanyl in the form of candy, a growing problem throughout the nation.
Enough fentanyl to kill nearly 3 million people was seized in two separate drug busts with connections to North Carolina this past month.
The fentanyl crisis is at an all-time high, with the southern border crisis intensifying since the Biden Administration took office in 2021.
The first and biggest bust occurred on Oct. 12 when Mario Alberto Castro Solache, 29, of Raleigh; Pedro Mondragon, 27, of Lillington; and Ignacio Rodriguez, 28, Bradenton, Florida, were arrested in connection to the largest drug bust in the history of Polk County, Florida.
Florida officials announced the arrests on Oct. 22.
Investigators seized 11 pounds of fentanyl, enough to kill 2.7 million people.
Operation Hot Dirt began in September when detectives were tipped off to drug traffickers’ plans to smuggle fentanyl from Mexico to Bradenton, Florida, and then into Polk County.