Delegates Debate Over Increased Penalties for Drug Trafficking

Mar 7, 2017

Members in the House of Delegates have considered a number of bills this legislative session that increase the penalties for breaking various laws. At least three of those bills have focused on drug crimes which Republican lawmakers say is in response to the state’s substance abuse epidemic.

According to the West Virginia Health Statistics Center, 818 people died of a drug overdose in 2016 – a nearly 13 percent increase over the previous year. The Center also reports 86 percent of those deaths in 2016 were linked to at least one opioid.

Those growing numbers are why Republican legislative leaders say they’re pursuing bills like House Bill 2579.

The bill increases the minimum amount of jail-time attached to a drug trafficking offense, or someone who gets caught bringing drugs into the state. The minimum sentence would increase from one to ten years, the maximum from fifteen to thirty years. A judge would have the option to fine the offender $25,000, incarcerate, or both.

A handful of members in the House who spoke against the bill argue the penalties are too high and would end up catching addicts rather than traffickers coming in from out-of-state.

“So if you have a kid that’s an addict, and goes next door, grabs prescription drugs, comes back to a party, and they spread it around, they’ve just committed this offense," said Democratic Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, "and they’re looking at a minimum of 10 years to 30 years in the penitentiary. That’s outrageous.”

Sponaugle pointed out the minimum sentence under this bill is the same minimum for committing a second degree murder.

Supporters of the bill, argue the increased penalties will be a deterrent and help keep dealers out of the state – protecting West Virginia citizens.

“If we do not increase this and hold a bigger hammer over their head to try to get cooperation to catch the bigger fish per say, then we’re losing," said Republican Delegate Ray Hollen of Wirt County, "We have to have leverage to do our job and to let the police officers do their job, and the prosecutors, and the judges.”

Hollen is also a retired West Virginia State Police Sergeant.

After an hour of debate, House Bill 2579 passed 88 to 10 and moves across the rotunda to the Senate.