BOSTON -- Drug dealers who deliver fatal doses of heroin could face murder charges if Massachusetts becomes the latest state to target the supply chain behind overdoses.
A Beacon Hill proposal would give prosecutors the authority to file second-degree murder charges, punishable by a mandatory 10 years in prison, against dealers who sell drugs tied to overdose deaths.
“If you’re trafficking in drugs and someone dies as a result, that is the equivalent of murder, and people should be held accountable,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who filed the legislation.
Details are still being hammered out, but Tarr said he draws a distinction between traffickers and addicts who peddle opioids to feed their habit.
“We want to get the traffickers, not the addicts,” he said.
Like many states, Massachusetts has experienced a surge of fatal overdoses from heroin and other opioids. Health officials counted 1,488 overdose deaths from January to September of last year, with the number expected to rise.
In 2015, overdoses claimed 1,747 lives statewide, including 236 in Essex County.
Federal prosecutors for decades have been able to pursue tough penalties in deadly drug delivery cases.
Congress passed the Len Bias law in 1988, setting mandatory minimum sentences in drug-related homicide cases, in response to a wave of crack cocaine deaths.
The law was named for a University of Maryland basketball star who overdosed on cocaine in 1986, days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics.
States have passed similar laws, and while penalties vary, they generally apply to anyone in a supply chain leading to a death, from dealers to acquaintances.
In Wisconsin, felony drug homicide charges can carry up to 25 years in prison.
Illinois and Pennsylvania passed felony drug-induced homicide laws in 2011, and Kansas in 2012, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Martin W. Healy, chief operating officer and legal counsel at the Massachusetts Bar Association, said prosecutors already have the authority to file manslaughter charges but making it stick can be challenging.
“There’s a high legal standard to meet,” he said. “They have to prove not only that the dealer sold the drugs, but also that they knew the batch of heroin was dangerous.”
Healy said prosecutors generally support tougher drug homicide laws to hold dealers accountable, but a range of factors make litigating cases difficult.
“People go into hiding, witnesses are afraid to talk with law enforcement because they’re worried about being arrested, and it’s often hard to know which dealer gave it to them,” he said. “In most cases, the main witness is the victim, who is deceased.”
Tougher penalties can give prosecutors leverage to force plea agreements and get information about larger dealers, which leads to arrests and prosecution, Healy said.
Dorothy White, who lost her son Richard to a fentanyl overdose two years ago, tried to get manslaughter charges filed against the dealer and others who provided the drugs.
She compiled a trail of evidence, including texts from her son’s phone setting up the drug deal. But she was told the evidence was circumstantial and prosecutors didn’t have the authority to pursue tougher charges.
“I told them who gave the drugs to my son ... but they wouldn’t press changes,“ said White, of Salisbury. “The dealer was going around bragging to people about how good his drugs were because they killed my son.”
White said she hopes Tarr’s proposal will prevent fatal overdoses.
“Too many people are dying,” she said. “Someone needs to be held accountable.”
Phil Lahey, a former Methuen city councilor and member of the nonprofit Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project, said advocates have been pressing for years to give prosecutors the authority to go after dealers.
“If someone sold a gun that was used in a homicide, they would be held responsible,” he said. “And these days there are a lot more people dying from heroin than guns.”
Still, Lahey said he doesn’t think addicts who give drugs to friends should be charged with murder, because they’re “sick individuals who are dealing to support the habit.”
“For anyone who’s making a buck on it,” he said, “the punishment should fit the crime.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.