Alaska Legislature

Alaska House advances bill to tackle fentanyl crisis with longer drug sentences

JUNEAU — An Alaska House committee advanced legislation last week to address the state’s fentanyl crisis with longer sentences for opioid convictions.

The Dunleavy administration previewed the measure in October as a way to combat a staggering rise in fentanyl deaths in Alaska. Supporters said there are not harsh enough penalties for drug dealers, while recovery advocates said the bill is overly broad and that drug users would be swept up in the harsher sentences.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced House Bill 66 last week, which has three main components:

• It would increase penalties from manslaughter to second-degree murder for distributing methamphetamine and opioids which directly results in death. Convictions would result in a mandatory minimum of 15 years behind bars and a maximum of 99 years.

• Sentences would be increased to a minimum of seven years in prison for selling any quantity of opioids. The committee added penalties for giving drugs to people with disabilities or who are incapacitated.

• Some felony drug convictions would be ineligible for sentence reductions for good behavior, which is known as “good time.” Sentences can currently be reduced by up to a third for all offenses, except for murder and rape.

Several Republican members of the committee applauded the proposals as a way to tackle the state’s opioid epidemic and to combat trafficking. They mentioned their own families’ experiences with fatal drug overdoses.


“We need to be harder. We need to be stricter, and the punishment needs to fit the crime,” said Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said he hoped the bill would be a message to traffickers, effectively putting up “a big, red ‘Do not enter Alaska’ sign” at the border.

‘Not an accidental overdose’

Nationally, there has been wave of measures to tackle the fentanyl crisis, which has been connected to 70,000 deaths per year. States across the country have recently enacted longer sentences for possession and distribution.

In 2021, 253 Alaskans died from a drug overdose and 196 of those deaths were from opioids. The state Department of Health said 75% of those opioid overdoses were from synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Last year, Alaska saw the highest annual increase of overdose deaths in the nation.

Bruce Snodgrass, a 22-year-old from Anchorage, died in 2021 from a fentanyl overdose. Sandy Snodgrass, his mother, has advocated for more education of the dangers of the powerful opioid.

“I consider what happened to my son a poisoning, not an accidental overdose, and that he was murdered,” she told the House Judiciary Committee.

Snodgrass spoke in support of murder convictions for people who sell fentanyl which results in fatal overdoses. She said that would act as a deterrent, and that tougher sentences for selling drugs could help district attorneys negotiate with lower-level dealers to give up their higher-level associates.

Anchorage Democrat Andrew Gray questioned the need for murder convictions for that offense because it would apply to a “minuscule” number of convictions. The Alaska Court System said that that there were two manslaughter convictions for drug-induced homicides between 2010 and 2022.

Progressive justice groups and nonprofits have said those laws are ineffective in reducing overdose deaths, and are difficult to convict. Multiple studies have found treating the opioid crisis as a public health emergency, rather than with harsher criminal enforcement, has been more effective.

The state of Alaska finalized a $58.5 million settlement in 2021 with multiple drug manufacturers and distributors found to be partially responsible for the opioid epidemic. Another $30 million in settlements is anticipated, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said.

An advisory council established by the governor recommended in November to give the money to groups focused on treatment, recovery and harm reduction. The state will receive the funding over 18 years.

The Dunleavy administration’s proposal for longer sentences applies not just to fentanyl but to all schedule IA drugs, which include opioids like heroin, but also oxycodone and codeine. There would be no minimum quantities to get the longer sentences.

“I don’t think someone who gives somebody an oxycodone tab should go to prison for seven to 11 years,” Gray said during a committee hearing.

He tried to limit the bill’s provisions to just fentanyl, but he was overruled by the Republican-led majority. Johnson said other opioids should be included because “death is death.”

‘Locked away like a monster’

In an unlikely alliance, far-right Wasilla Republican David Eastman joined Gray in speaking forcefully against the measure. He said it was originally described as being about fentanyl, but it became something “totally different.”

“It became, ‘We need to have harsher penalties and that we can’t have harsh enough penalties or too harsh penalties’ on anyone that’s involved in basically cases, in my view, that’s just an infraction, dealing with an illicit substance,” Eastman said.

The Department of Corrections estimated that costs would not rise for the agency from longer sentences because of the currently available bed capacity within the prison system, based on the current number of incarcerated Alaskans.


Members of groups that work to prepare incarcerated Alaskans for life outside prison were opposed to removing “good time” sentence reductions for certain felony drug convictions. Don Habeger, a member of the Juneau Reentry Coalition, said that has been a proven way to encourage people into substance abuse treatment, and to modify their behavior.

“Why would you change something that’s working?” Haberger said.

Randy McLellan, president of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, said that would likely be counterproductive because good time is a useful tool for correctional officers to encourage good behavior. He compared the policy to California’s controversial three strikes law, and said he didn’t understand why that was being proposed.

“What’s it trying to do?” McLellan said.

Two Juneau men, who are in recovery and currently living in halfway houses, spoke to the House Judiciary Committee in support of good behavior leading to less time in prison for felony drug convictions.

“I do not believe that an addict should be locked away like a monster that doesn’t deserve to get help or enjoy a family dinner with their loved ones at an earlier time for performing good behavior in a very difficult environment,” Thomas Morris said.

The Department of Law said that people with simple misdemeanor possession convictions could still get their sentences reduced for good behavior. The Department of Corrections said most drug convictions are misdemeanors, and the state’s four highest felony drug offenses are relatively uncommon. Approximately 171 people are convicted of those crimes each year.

But Dr. Sarah Spencer, an addiction specialist in Ninilchik, said a “huge portion” of her patients had been involved in the criminal justice system. She said longer sentences for drug dealers would invariably impact users because many sell drugs to buy drugs themselves.


“They’re not two separate groups of people,” she said.

Speaking for herself and not her employer, Spencer said that drug users routinely share opioids with each other, which could attract the new seven-year minimum sentence. Recovery advocates want people to use drugs together because of the increased dangers of using them alone, she said.

“Everyone understands that overdose is a risk to using drugs and blaming that on the person that delivered that substance and supplied that substance, and how you prove that — it’s just, it’s beyond my understanding,” she said.

Four Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance the bill to the finance committee after Deputy Attorney General John Skidmore encouraged lawmakers to pass it as currently drafted. Gray recommended it be amended and Anchorage Democrat Cliff Groh, a former prosecutor, gave it no referral. Eastman recommended that the bill should not pass.

Anchorage Democrat Matt Claman, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to comment on the measure proposed by the Department of Law. The Senate version of the bill got its first hearing Friday afternoon.

Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at