The AG-backed bill would increase penalties for selling deadly drugs in Iowa

Republican Attorney General of Iowa Brenna Bird. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES – Supplying a drug that causes death would carry a sentence of up to 25 years in prison, under a bill proposed by Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird.

The bill was passed by subcommittees in both the Iowa House and Senate on Wednesday.

Currently, the maximum charge that can be brought against a person who sells a drug resulting in death is the supply itself, a Class C felony. Prosecutors can charge you with involuntary manslaughter, but that penalty is a lesser Class D felony .

The law would make selling a drug causing death a Class B felony and putting it on the same footing as attempted murder and killing someone while driving under the influence of alcohol. Marijuana is exempt from the bill.

A Class B crime carries a penalty of up to 25 years in prison.

Bird, a Republican, said during a Senate subcommittee on the bill that the proposal aims to address a rising rate of overdoses in Iowa.

“It’s so important that we can seek justice for these victims and their families, so I’m very encouraged and look forward to working with the governor and the legislature as we move forward,” she said in an interview.

Iowa has one of the lowest overdose death rates in the United States — Iowa ranked the fifth lowest of the 50 states in 2021 — but the number of deaths has risen in line with national trends in recent years.

In 2021, 470 Iowans died from a drug overdose, according to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office.

Elected officials in Iowa have sounded the alarm in recent years about an increase in overdose deaths in the state, in part due to an increased presence of fentanyl, a powerful opioid.

Bird said increasing penalties would align the law with the seriousness of the crime.

“It’s not being handled the way it should be and how some other state and even federal laws would deal with it,” she said.

However, some lobbyists and proponents were concerned that the bill would be counterproductive, bringing harsh charges to situations that might not warrant it.

Lisa Davis-Cook, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association for Justice, said the organization, which is registered against the law, has concerns about whether the law would act as a deterrent.

“What about this college boy who shares drugs with a friend and then leaves and that friend dies? So they can’t report the overdose. Are these really the people we want to charge with a Class B felony?” Davis-Cook said.

Democratic Rep. Ross Wilburn of Ames was the only legislator not to sign off on a subcommittee passage of the bill. He said he did not oppose the bill, but would like to gather information on the bill’s impact on minorities and see the details of a similar bill that is expected to come out of Reynolds’ office.

Responding to concerns, Bird said she believes the proposed penalty in the bill is the right approach. She noted the sentence is less than the federal charge, which carries a sentence of up to 40 years in prison.

“If someone is providing illegal drugs to someone and those drugs kill that person, we need a law that takes that into account,” she said.

Mahaska District Attorney Andrew Ritland said he had been working to change the law for several years after a woman in his district died of a drug overdose.

Ashley Shafer, a 24-year-old from Oskaloosa, died in 2019 after being injected with methamphetamine. Three men who gave her the drug took her body to a river and did not report the death.

In this case, a Class C felony was the harshest sentence Ritland could impose, he said. The Class D crime, involuntary manslaughter, is also very difficult to prove, he said.

“It doesn’t even begin to reflect the extent of the damage done in such cases,” he said.

The bill also provides an exception to Iowa’s Good Samaritan law, which provides legal protections for people who call emergency services when they or another person overdoses.

The upcoming Reynolds bill will deal with fentanyl

Reynolds said in her State of the State speech that she would introduce a bill that would increase penalties for selling fentanyl and double or triple the penalty if the sale results in a death.

“I call on lawmakers to increase penalties for manufacturing and distributing fentanyl in any quantity,” she said during her Jan. 10 address. “That means longer jail terms and bigger fines, even if the amount is small. And if an overdose results in death or serious injury, the penalties will be even more severe.”

Reynolds has proposed selling 5 grams or less of fentanyl should be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000; between 5 and 50 grams at 25 years and up to $100,000; and more than 50 grams with 50 years and a fine of up to $1 million.

If the sale results in a death, the penalty could be two to three times higher, and it would be two times higher if a person manufactures or supplies fentanyl in the presence of a minor.

The Reynolds Office of Drug Control Policy is on a tie on Bird’s bill because Reynolds will introduce a similar law, but a lobbyist said the office supports the measure in general.

“We support the concept of an increased deterrent for those trafficking these extremely deadly drugs into the state of Iowa,” said Susie Sher, a lobbyist with the Reynolds Drug Control Office.

Tom Barton of the Gazette Des Moines bureau contributed.