Lawmakers, grieving parents differ on how tough to get on fentanyl

By: - May 14, 2022 6:00 am

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There’s broad agreement that Louisiana’s fentanyl crisis has reached acute levels, with overdose deaths attributed to manmade opioids up 119% according to state health officials. But consensus on an approach to curb these numbers and discourage abuse of the drug remains elusive, even as state lawmakers advance a proposed law to make penalties harsher.

Sen. Glen Womack, R-Harrisonburg, and Rep. Marcus Bryant, D-New Iberia, have combined their individual proposals to create Millie’s Law, named after Millie Harvey. The 28-year-old woman died of an overdose in 2017 after taking heroin that she didn’t know included fentanyl. 

In its current form, the bill would make manufacturing, distribution or dispensing of fentanyl and drugs similar to it, known as analogues, a crime of violence that involves more serious penalties. A provision removed from the proposal would have excluded a person who unknowingly provides the drug to someone, such as someone who shares a joint that’s been laced with fentanyl without their knowledge.

The Senate Judiciary C Committee approved Womack’s bill with minimal discussion and no opposition in April. When Bryant presented an amended version Wednesday in the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, chairman Joe Marino asked him why the “knowingly” language had been removed.

Bryant chafed at what he perceived to be Marino’s suggestion that the law treat someone who shares fentanyl without knowledge of the drug being present differently than a dealer. It was left unsettled whether Bryant and Marino were on the same page when it came to the definition of “distribution,” which would cover two friends sharing a joint or cocaine even if neither was aware it contained fentanyl.

Lilly Harvey, the mother of the proposed law’s namesake, told the House committee she approached Womack a year ago about authoring a bill with harsher consequences for fentanyl use. She also shared that she is a recovering heroin addict, now seven years sober, and has a son in recovery from opioid addiction.

“I’m going to tell you in street language: ‘If you’re gonna sling, you better know what you bring,’” Harvey said, implying the onus should be on dealers to be aware of the contents they peddle.

Lilly Harvey agreed to a plea deal in Rapides Parish for Kendrick Davis, who had been charged with second-degree murder in Millie’s death. He admitted guilt to negligent homicide and illegal possession of a gun as a felon, and he was sentenced to 20 years.

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The proposal’s removal of a “good time” option to shorten the sentence of offenders is needed to reduce the “gray area” in the law, Lilly Harvey said. She leads Millie Mattered, a nonprofit that advocates for tougher drug laws. 

Harvey said she spoke with a teacher in Lake Charles who said she has used Narcan to revive four students, between ages 12 to 14, from opioid overdoses this school year,

“We’re losing children who don’t even know what it’s like to live yet,” Harvey said. 

The existing ability for prosecutors to bring murder or negligent homicide charges in such cases is one reason why the proposed law isn’t needed, said Meghan Garvey with the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Another concern is that the proposal removes the option for defendants to obtain drug treatment as part of their sentence, she said. 

“I don’t think it will do anything to improve public safety,” Garvey said. 

Bob Broussard, another parent whose child died from a fentanyl overdose, told the committee he supported the bill but wanted to exclude anyone who unknowingly shared it from its consequences. His daughter, 20-year-old JonTerez Broussard, died in October when she ingested cocaine that had fentanyl in it. She could have been convicted had she shared the drugs with her friends, her father said.

Tonya Doucette’s son, Trey, died in November 2020 when he took a pill without knowing it was entirely fentanyl and carfentanil, an analogue — “enough to kill everybody in this room,” she told committee members. 

“He has two younger brothers… we’re living a life sentence,” Doucette said.

Her nonprofit, Project Trey, works with the Calcasieu Parish coroner to raise fentanyl awareness. Calcasieu has recorded 29 fentanyl deaths so far this year as of May 10 with “several more” fatalities expected to be attributed to the drug, Doucette said.

Some committee members wrestled with trying to balance the need for stricter penalties with effective rehabilitation.   

Marino, an independent from Gretna who’s a criminal defense attorney, noted that drug treatment options are limited at Louisiana’s correctional centers and non-existent at parish jails. Local facilities hold just more than half of the 26,000 incarcerated people who were in state custody as of Dec. 31, according to figures from the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. 

Marino was one of two committee members who voted against the bill, which heads next to the House floor.

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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

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