JUNEAU — The Alaska House of Representatives debated a bill Wednesday that seeks to address a sharp rise in fentanyl deaths in Alaska with longer prison sentences.
House Bill 66, introduced by Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, would increase penalties from manslaughter to second-degree murder for distributing drugs that directly lead to someone’s death. There also would be longer sentences for first-time felony fentanyl offenses, and for giving drugs to people who are disabled or incapacitated.
Alaska saw a 417% increase in fentanyl deaths between 2017 and 2021. Last year, Alaska also experienced the highest annual increase of overdose deaths in the nation. One week in April this year, there were three deaths and 11 overdoses in Mat-Su from a lethal batch of drugs that likely contained fentanyl.
Mothers of children who died from drug overdoses called into committee hearings, urging lawmakers to pass the fentanyl bill. Stacy Eisert — mother of Anchorage English teacher Jason Eisert, who died of an overdose in 2021 — said that there must be consequences for people who peddle drugs.
“No parent should ever have to endure the immense pain that we experienced that night and continue to endure every day. We lost a son and his children will never know their daddy,” she said.
Members of Republican-led House majority leadership have said passing a bill to address the fentanyl crisis is a priority this legislative session. More than three hours of debate on the House floor Wednesday focused on whether longer prison sentences would act as a deterrent for drug dealers, and which drugs should attract the longer sentences of seven to 11 years behind bars.
There were ideological and partisan divides among House members. Conservative Republicans were typically in favor of long sentences for a broader range of opioids; moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats were more likely to want the harsher penalties tailored specifically to fentanyl, and they expressed a desire to devote more resources to drug treatment and rehabilitation.
Rep. Jamie Allard, a conservative Eagle River Republican, opposed narrowing the bill, and said that she was appalled that any lawmakers would want to be soft on crime. Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat, agreed that fentanyl dealers should be imprisoned, but he said longer sentences would not address the underlying causes of addiction, adding, “I hope after we pass this bill that we focus on root causes.”
Recovery advocates had warned that longer prison sentences for drug dealers would invariably impact users because many sell drugs to buy drugs themselves. Megan Edge, director of the Alaska Prison Project at the ACLU of Alaska, said that tough-on-crime bills are costly and ineffective and do not help provide treatment or rehabilitation for substance abuse, adding, “We want solutions that actually work.”
[Previously: Anchorage School District sees sudden rise in drug overdoses among high school students]
When HB 66 advanced from the judiciary committee in April, all opioids — such as fentanyl and heroin, but also oxycodone and codeine — would have attracted longer prison sentences. To get the longer sentences, there would be no minimum quantities of those drugs required to be given to another person. The House Finance Committee narrowed those tougher penalties to solely apply to fentanyl, leaving felony sentences for other opioids unchanged.
Rep. Mike Cronk, a conservative Tok Republican, introduced an amendment on the House floor Wednesday to broaden those tougher penalties to again include all opioids. Cronk said that “drugs are rampant in our villages” and that fentanyl is not the only deadly substance being abused in Alaska.
Soldotna Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a moderate Republican and pharmacist, said that addressing drug use and addiction is “nuanced and complicated.” He was skeptical that longer sentences and second-degree murder charges for drug-induced homicides would help reduce overdoses. “I don’t think it solves the problem of people dying,” he said.
Cronk’s amendment to broaden the types of drugs that would get longer sentences was rejected on a 23-17 vote, with a handful of Republicans joining Democrats and independents in opposition.
Giving drugs like fentanyl to another person, which directly results in their death, can currently lead to manslaughter convictions with sentences up to 20 years behind bars. HB 66 would change those convictions to second-degree murder, which has a sentencing range between 15 and 99 years.
Rep. Andrew Gray, an Anchorage Democrat, introduced an amendment that would have narrowed the second-degree murder charge solely for deaths caused by fentanyl. Gray said that “this shouldn’t be a bill about Vicodin, it should be a bill about fentanyl.”
The Alaska Court System has said two people were convicted on manslaughter charges for drug-induced homicides between 2010 and 2022. But the state Department of Law has said that the threat of harsher penalties has encouraged low-level drug dealers to give up their higher-level associates. An Unalaska resident accused of giving a fatal dose of fentanyl to a fisherman was charged last week with manslaughter, KUCB reported.
[Anchorage police officers are now carrying overdose-reversing drug naloxone]
Gray’s amendment to limit second-degree murder charges to deaths caused by fentanyl was rejected on a 25-15 vote, with mostly Democrats and independents voting for the narrower provision.
Another focus of floor debates was whether felony drug offenders should be eligible to have their sentences reduced for good behavior behind bars, which is known as “good time.” All sentences in Alaska, except for murder and rape, can currently be reduced by up to a third for good behavior.
The bill originally prohibited “good time” sentence reductions for all felony drug offenses, which was intended to be a deterrent for drug dealers. Members of nonprofits and the correctional officers’ union opposed that prohibition and said that “good time” was a useful tool in incentivizing rehabilitation and getting people into treatment.
The House Finance Committee stripped out the prohibition on “good time” sentence reductions for felony drug offenses, unless they directly result in deaths.
On the House floor, Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance proposed a compromise: Sentences could not be reduced for people convicted of distributing the two most serious classes of drugs, which include fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, but also psychedelic mushrooms and ecstasy. But her amendment was rejected.
Vance said House debates had focused too much on the bill’s impacts on criminals and not enough on the victims of drugs overdoses. She said that HB 66 was a crime bill, and that it was not intended to focus on rehabilitation.
In 2021, the state of Alaska finalized a $58.5 million settlement with multiple drug manufacturers and distributors found to be partially responsible for the opioid epidemic. In November, an advisory council established by the governor recommended giving that money to groups focused on treatment, recovery and harm reduction. Dunleavy introduced legislation to set up opioid remediation trust funds, but the measure has not advanced in the House or Senate for a final vote.
HB 66 is expected to have enough votes to advance Thursday from the House and on to the Senate. Anchorage Democratic Sen. Matt Claman, who chairs the judiciary committee, said by text message that he hadn’t studied the House’s changes to the bill, but he looked forward to reviewing them.
The 121-day constitutional deadline for the regular legislative session is midnight of May 17.