State law imposes harsher penalties as fentanyl deaths spike

Published 12:45 pm Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Cordie Rodenbaugh recalls a conversation she had with her son Parker at the end of his freshman year of college. He had decided to transfer schools to Mississippi State University to study architecture and they spoke about his future.

“He said, ‘Mama, I just want to make a difference in the world,” she said recently.

Parker died in 2014, when he was 22 before his junior year, from the effects of a drug called 25b-NB0me, or “synthetic LSD,” which he took at a party and caused him to have violent convulsions. Two acquaintances testified in court that they sought medical care but only after Parker was turning blue and appeared to have stopped breathing.

His death led to what is believed to be the first known case in Mississippi where a drug dealer was prosecuted for murder in a drug-related death. The person who sold him the synthetic LSD, Skylar O’Kelly, was convicted of drug trafficking and second-degree murder and sentenced to two concurrent 10-year sentences in 2016. A state appeals court, however, overturned the murder conviction in 2018 finding there was insufficient evidence to support the charge. O’Kelly was later resentenced on drug trafficking charges and remains in state custody.

Since her son’s death, Rodenbaugh has devoted her life to speaking with families who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses. As deaths have surged due to synthetic opioids in recent years in Mississippi, she has held Narcan training in her home but she mainly focuses on lobbying for tougher laws to hold drug distributors accountable for overdose deaths.

Attempts to pass such laws have failed until this year when HB 607 — better known as Parker’s Law — was approved by state lawmakers in March. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill April 19.

Previous versions faced criticism from mental health advocates who feared it criminalized an already vulnerable population and would keep people from seeking help, resulting in further overdose deaths.

The new law specifically targets the sale of fentanyl. A person charged with drug distribution of fentanyl could face 20 years to life in prison if the sale directly results in an overdose death. It takes effect July 1.

Drug users who share drugs resulting in an overdose or those who seek medical help for people who overdose can’t be charged under the law.

State Rep. Nick Bain said the law was crafted with input from mental health experts and provides prosecutors a tool to go to after this type of crime.

“And I believe it is a crime,” he said. “I think the bill is narrow and tailored to fentanyl and aimed at being a shield for people who are addicts and targets people trying to exploit them for being addicts.”

Drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed during the pandemic. There were more than 100,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. during 2020 and 586 were Mississippians, according to CDC data.

Deaths involving fentanyl climbed from 139 in 2019 to 313 in 2020, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health. More than half of these deaths involved the use of multiple substances and about a third were among people younger than 35.

Dr. Katherine Pannel, Medical Director of Right Track Medical Group, is fighting against the crisis on a national and local level. Pannel testified before the House Select Committee on Economy about the dangers of fentanyl. 

“Illicitly manufactured fentanyl has no medicinal effects and it’s distributed through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effects,” Pannel said. “It’s often added to drugs because of its extreme potency which makes drugs more cheaper, more powerful and more dangerous.

Synthetic fentanyl can be cut, colored, scored, and pressed to be sold as a counterfeit for other illicit drugs such as Xanax, Ritalin or Oxycodone. Nowadays even marijuana is laced with fentanyl.

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, is only slightly less deadly than nerve gas and just as deadly as ricin, she said. The latter two are both considered weapons of mass destruction.

To hammer home how dangerous the substance is just two milligrams of fentanyl, comparable to 15 to 20 granules of salt, is a lethal dose.

Pannel is working with state legislators to decrease the effects of fentanyl. She also works within the Oxford community educating college students on the dangers associated with substance abuse and the severity of this fentanyl crisis.

The medical director’s main concern is that while substance use may be declining, the rate of deaths is increasing. 

To most, it doesn’t make sense and that is why I am trying to educate as many young people as possible,” said Pannel. “These pills that they take when trying to have a little fun at a party can kill you. You can’t smell it, you can’t taste it and these pills look no different from any other pill you’d get from the pharmacy.

Murder convictions in drug overdose cases are still rare, though the rise in synthetic opioid-related deaths has prompted more states to consider laws that would hold drug distributors accountable.

As of 2019, 25 states had some form of a drug-induced homicide law on the books, according to Temple University’s Prescription Drug Abuse Policy System. The charges vary by state from manslaughter to capital murder, which carries a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

In Mississippi, the O’Kelly case was one of the first known examples where a murder conviction occurred in addition to drug trafficking charges. Last month, Jackson resident Carlos Allen was sentenced to 124 years in prison without the possibility of parole for drug trafficking fentanyl which resulted in the overdose death of a 24-year-old man in 2021.

But these cases remain some of the few exceptions.

Drug-induced homicide laws date back to the 1980s and have been criticized by drug policy experts who say they criminalize vulnerable drug users rather than effectively target drug distributors.

Often these laws don’t have the effect they are intended to have and do more harm, said Angela Mallette, the founder of the Mississippi Harm Reduction Initiative, an organization that advocates for health-based solutions for people living with addiction.

“When you pass these types of laws, it creates increased fear among the drug-using population to call for help, ” she said. “It does nothing to decrease the number of people who use. People are still going to use a substance they’re dependent upon. But now there’s a possibility that they can be charged with murder if someone overdoses. In scenarios like that, it just precipitates more people dying.”

In addition to the safety nets built into Parker’s Law, a non-partisan committee of the Mississippi legislature will be required to evaluate and report how many people are prosecuted every year under the provisions of the bill.

“This will be a good way to see how this law is playing out and if it is resulting in any harmful practices,” she said.